Spain coach Julen Lopetegui is expecting "a beautiful final" on Tuesday as the holders look to retain their U21 crown against an Italy side with "real ability to create danger".
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Spain coach Julen Lopetegui is expecting "a beautiful final" against Italy on Tuesday as the holders strive to retain their UEFA European Under-21 Championship crown.
Lopetegui's side have made splendid progress through the tournament in Israel, winning all their games without conceding and booking their spot in the showpiece with Saturday's 3-0 semi-final defeat of Norway. The Group B winners now face one last obstacle in their quest to deliver Spain's fourth title at this level – and Lopetegui stressed that his charges will tackle the Azzurini "with a lot of excitement and desire".
"[A final] forces you to reach to your limits, in every sense: in a defensive sense, in terms of attacking, on a mental level and on a physical level," explained the 46-year-old, who took over from Luis Milla in August 2012. "So you have to be ready to reach your limits, because an opponent like that forces you to, without any doubt. It's a beautiful final and it will surely be a hard-fought one as well."
Italy certainly appear worthy opponents, having been breached just once themselves and impressing with their worth ethic. Coached by Devis Mangia, the Group A victors edged their way past the Netherlands in the last four to continue their bid for a sixth European U21 crown. Lopetegui predicts a stiff challenge at Jerusalem's Teddy Stadium.
"They're a team who still maintain the [traditional] qualities of Italian football, but they've also taken a step forward in many other areas. They have a real ability to create danger on the pitch, with great players in a defensive structure; a very balanced team, with a different style, but certainly not less attractive or less effective. They're a very good team."
Spain too have struck an excellent balance, and although they have profited from excellent individual displays from the likes of Isco, plus the goals of Álvaro Morata, Lopetegui is a firm believer in collective responsibility. The squad is king for the former goalkeeper, and on that score he is fortunate to have such a depth of talent to call upon.
"The strength of each team is decided by the squad," he said. "In a short competition like this, everyone needs to be committed to the same goal, and everyone needs to contribute. Everyone needs to be confident, they all need to add their input, so that the squad can stay fresh and at the right level. In that sense we are lucky that, except for the goalkeepers, all the boys have been able to play. That says something about the confidence there is in this squad."
Lopetegui himself has plenty of reasons to believe, having already led a Spain side to the continental summit when he steered the U19s to victory at their UEFA European Championship last year, his team beating Greece 1-0 in the decider. "That was a hard-fought game, where we did many things well, but it was hard to get the victory," he said. "The boys were prepared to reach their limits, which this group must do against Italy. When you talk about finals, you talk about games that require maximum effort. Every detail can be decisive."