Spain crowned European Under-21 champions
Saturday, 25 June 2011
Spain followed their FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship-winning seniors onto the podium by defeating Switzerland to win the UEFA European Under-21 Championship.
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Spain have won the UEFA European Under-21 Championship for a third time after Ander Herrera's header and an extravagant Thiago Alcántara free-kick proved enough for Luis Milla's team to overcome first-time finalists Switzerland.
Boosted by Ander's 41st-minute goal, Spain wore down a Swiss side who had come into Saturday's Aarhus final on the back of four straight victories here in Jutland. Thiago's superlative set piece nine minutes from the end sealed the 2-0 triumph. Milla's always enterprising selection duly followed their FIFA World Cup and UEFA European Championship-winning seniors onto the podium.
If a mocked-up Viking longboat appeared for the closing ceremony to recall the Nordic tradition of raiding and trading, the opening quarter of the game was tame in comparison. The first incursion from Adrián López came to nothing, as the No7 dragged his shot across the face of goal following Javi Martínez's surge from centre circle to penalty area.
One man keeping with more recent tradition was Milla. The coach stuck with the XI that had started Spain's last three, victorious, matches. Switzerland coach Pierluigi Tami went with his strongest team too by reintroducing Granit Xhaka; after all, his side had the only 100% record – and still unbreached defence – of the tournament.
Perhaps it was to be expected that the two form teams, with their similar formations, should take time working the other out. Where Spain had five-goal Adrián and the prompting Juan Mata, Switzerland could count on Admir Mehmedi and an arch-playmaker in Xherdan Shaqiri. It was the No10 who let fly their first shot in anger on the half-hour. Getting between Dídac Vila and a wayward bouncing ball, Shaqiri gave it true direction on the half-volley but David de Gea made the save.
Thiago tested Yann Sommer's reflexes moments later, yet the first-half stalemate persisted until four minutes from the interval when a delicious curling centre from left-back Dídac was met by the head of midfielder Ander. It was the Athletic Club player's second headed goal in Denmark and another example of Spain's excellent service from the flanks.
Swiss confidence levels had been rising all fortnight, and, despite the deficit, for 45 minutes they had cut Spain's supply of possession to a championship record low. Yet to paraphrase the half-time musical offering from Cher: did they really believe? The initial inference was they did. Innocent Emeghara's one-two with Mehmedi yielded an opportunity that he slid straight at De Gea. Tami was no less positive in introducing – as in the semi-final against Czech Republic – a second striker in Mario Gavranović, as well as midfielders Amir Abrashi and Pajtim Kasami.
At the other end, however, Iker Muniain flashed one attempt against Sommer's hands, before Javi Martínez blazed over from Thiago's next assist. For all the leg work of Fabian Lustenberger and Xhaka, the longer the second half wore on, the more Switzerland found themselves lost in Spanish triangles. They might have been definitively sunk, only Alberto Botía powered into orbit his free header from Mata's corner.
Still afloat, Tami's charges twice almost found an aerial route back towards parity which Kasami, on the stretch, and then Timm Klose from Shaqiri's free-kick, failed to take. FC Barcelona graduate and Carlsberg Sport Man of the Match Thiago made them regret those lost chances when he caught Sommer off guard with an audacious 40-metre free-kick. With the Swiss now at sixes and sevens, it was a small comfort that Spain did not make it three.