The final

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The final

The winning equaliser
Spain celebrate winning the 2017 title after a dramatic defeat of England ©Sportsfile

The final

The winning equaliser

"The equaliser was the winning goal." The comment, made by Sir Alex Ferguson, dates back to the 2014 Madrid derby in the UEFA Champions League final when, with seconds of added time remaining, Luka Modrić delivered a corner and the head of Sergio Ramos levelled the score. Atlético folded; Real went on to win.

To equate planet football's greatest club final to a U17 fixture between national teams might seem little short of lèse-majesté. But, on a balmy evening in Varazdin, Spain and England offered 8,187 spectators a contest which, if offered to the public as an untitled video, could easily have been mistaken for a top-level adult game.


England's Callum Hudson-Odoi (left) and Jadon Sancho

It was all about high-tempo ball circulation, tight control and neat passing under pressure, tactical awareness, extraordinary solo skills and, above all, attacking vocations. To describe it in a report of the "and after 18 minutes" variety would be to demean an enthralling spectacle.

But, after 18 minutes, the intensity shifted up a gear. Prior to that, it had been an even contest between teams who showed profound respect for their opponents. After fielding an unchanged team throughout the tournament, Steve Cooper had to deal with an enforced change after the injury that had sidelined Tashan Oakley-Boothe.

His slot in central midfield was taken by Alexander Denny, with the player flown in from England on the eve of the final, Joel Latibaudiere, starting in place of Timothy Eyoma at right-back. Santi Denia remained loyal to the starters who had seen him through the knockout rounds.


Right-back Mateu Morey equalises for Spain

Respect was translated into caution as teams who mirrored each other's 1-4-2-3-1 formation engaged in risk-management, playing neat combinations from the back through midfield but rarely challenging the opposing keeper. Central midfield was kept tight, Jandro Orellana performing a crucial defence/attack balancing role for Spain (until he limped off midway through the second half); George McEachran doing likewise for England.

Suddenly, England struck with one of their trademark moments of magic. Goalkeeper Josef Bursik initiated the move; left-back Lewis Gibson fed Jadon Sancho on the touchline; accelerating infield, the wrong-footed winger slipped a pass through the inside channel for Callum Hudson-Odoi to dribble past Víctor Chust and beat Álvaro Fernández at the far post.

The goal served to convince the Spaniards that they needed to express themselves. Denia, in grey hoodie and black tracksuit trousers, constantly egged them on from the edge of the technical area, with his assistant Luis de la Fuente striding out to control mechanisms at dead-ball situations.


Phil Foden celebrates after restoring England's lead

Spain reverted to the exuberant wing play that had served them well en route to the final, with Moha roaming high and wide to link midfield with attack and the two full-backs – the Barcelona pair comprising Mateu Morey on the right; Juan Miranda on the left – unstintingly investing calories in overlapping and underlapping runs and exhibiting their understanding with wingers Ferran Torres and Sergio Gómez.

The reward came two minutes before half-time. Moha, wide on the right, fed a pass through the corridor between left-back and centre-back into the path of a deep run by striker Abel Ruíz, whose cut-back was met by the left foot of Morey, surprising the England defence with a high-speed run through the middle.

Cooper, in the meantime, had been out to the touchline to correct attack-to-defence transitions and to encourage his players to find solutions to Spain's increasing domination of possession. With Sancho using his mesmerising dribbling skills on the left and the left-footed Phil Foden working the inner channels from his starting position on the right, England attacked with menace but struggled to deliver a decisive final pass. Spain's pressure on the ball-carrier and rapid transitions into compact 1-4-4-2 defending shut down supply routes and, as the second half progressed, Denia's team looked the more likely to break the deadlock.


Nacho Díaz clenches his fists in celebration

That changed, once again, after 18 minutes. One of England's two corners was bent in right-footed from the left by Hudson-Odoi and, at the back post, Miranda and Chust could do no better than a partial clearance. Foden, setting himself up with the first touch and driving a fierce left-footer into the bottom corner, restored England's advantage.

Again, Spain responded with the mental fortitude they had displayed when trailing in three previous matches. They stayed focused and remained unhurriedly faithful to their principles of combination play, resisting any temptation to resort to a long-ball strategy. Cooper, visibly dismayed when his goalkeeper started playing long, had to applaud him for saves from Miranda and Gómez as Denia's team relentlessly pushed forward. Although England's front men continued to strike sparks, possession belonged to Spain.

In the closing minutes, Cooper removed Sancho, Foden and Hudson-Odoi with a view to strengthening his midfield, but it was the last of Denia's three changes which tipped the balance. With the clock ticking down, he replaced the extenuated Moha with Nacho Díaz, a striker from CD Roda, a club with an amateur first team in regional football but with 36 grassroots and youth-development squads and a collaboration agreement with UEFA Europa League contenders Villarreal.


Víctor Chust after converting the winning penalty

The Danish referee, having signalled four minutes of added time, awarded Spain a corner on the left with the clock ticking towards 86 minutes. An inswinging delivery by fellow substitute José Alonso caused confusion amid England's zonal marking and was met by Díaz's head. The goalkeeper could do no more than divert the powerful finish into the roof of the net. Dramatically, 2-2. As soon as England kicked-off, the final whistle sounded.

Bursik, maybe over-burdening himself with blame for failing to save the header, needed to be consoled before positioning himself between the posts for the immediate penalty shoot-out while his shell-shocked team-mates sought moral rearmament.

England scored the first spot kick but after Spain, with the psychological breeze at their backs, had converted the next two, Rhian Brewster's shot struck the post and Latibeaudiere's disappeared high into the crowd. After Gómez had made it 3-1, the old system would have given England a chance to peg back to 3-2. The experimental tie-break format, however, allowed no right to reply, leaving Chust to step up and seal a 4-1 victory for Spain in the fifth of the last six finals to be decided by a shoot-out.

As the red-shirted players gleefully celebrated their first U17 title since 2008, the white-shirted English slumped to the turf, unwilling to believe that, even though the team had remained unbeaten throughout the qualifying campaign and the final tournament, the trophy had slipped from their grasp in the cruellest of fashions. In a final which neither team deserved to lose, an equaliser had been the winning goal.