It was an extremely interesting week for Spain’s lower International levels, with some of the most promising players from the younger generations especially getting chances to show their talent as this year’s Under 21, 20, 19, and 17 sides all take shape ahead of summer tournaments. Also, we have the first, and surely not last, piece of silverware of the year, as the Under-18′s unsurprisingly succeeded in the Copa Atlántico.
We’ll start from the top, as Julen Lopetegui’s U21 team were held to a 1-1 draw away against a talented Belgian side on Tuesday. However it wasn’t the team we were used to, as only players born in 1992 and later were included in the squad (in preparation for when the age limit drops from 1990 in August). This meant that 12 players got debuts at La Rojita‘s highest level, including many of the U19 squad that triumphed under the same manager last summer, and a few of our favourites here at Football Cantera.
Liverpool’s Suso, who debuted as a late substitute against Italy a few months back, started as the #10 and shone, putting in a really impressive first half performance that included an assist for Gerard Deulofeu to finish in rampant style. Rookie Athletic Bilbao ‘keeper Kepa Arrizabalaga was another of the debutantes, and despite being impressive overall, could do absolutely nothing about Belgium’s equalizer. Van der Bruggen almost broke the net with his stunning effort before half-time, volleying expertly into the top corner from long range.
Sergi Gómez, the excellent Rubén Pardo, Paco Alcácer and Pedro Obiang, a regular in Serie A for Sampdoria finally given a long overdue chance, were the other starters playing for the first time, but it wasn’t until the second half that we saw the bulk of the new boys. Barcelona’s 17 year-old phenom Alex Grimaldo came on at half-time along with Atlético midfielder Saúl Ñíguez, who was soon joined by club-mate Óliver Torres for the last half hour. All three showed just why they are so highly rated and didn’t look at all out of place having made the step up, the latter especially catching the eye with an array of impressive passes and touches.
Unfortunately there would be no breakthrough for Lopetegui’s side though, but as usual, they dominated the game and did have chances, Deulofeu hitting the crossbar after an Óliver knockdown and Saúl shaving the goal-frame with a header. There were plenty of positives to focus on, with Dani Sotres, Arsenal’s Ignasi Miquel, Luis Alberto and Juan Bernat winning their first caps before the match ended too. The full squad will return for the next round of games in March, but many of the younger squad will re-unite for the U20 World Cup in June, before forming the new Under-21 a few months later.
An extremely busy man, Lopetegui will also be managing the Under-19′s this year, and he took charge of the U18 side in last week’s Copa Atlántico in Gran Canaria, where the younger players in contention competed in and won the four team tournament for a seventh successive year. Plenty of exciting names were on show, including a few who featured in our recent ‘Ones to Watch for 2013′ feature. You may not be surprised to find out that they didn’t disappoint either.
On the first match-day La Rojita took on Mexico, but didn’t get off to the best start with a late goal meaning they had to settle for a draw. Atlético forward Iván Calero opened the scoring with an excellent first half strike, and was the team’s best player on the night, but Pineda leveled things on 85 minutes. Just a day later they did get a win, a much changed team overcoming the local Canarias XI. A single Sandro Ramírez penalty decided the game, with the young Barcelona striker deciding not to celebrate against his regional compatriots.
In the deciding game later that week, he was on target once again along with this year’s Juvenil DH sensation Santi Mina (who has scored for Celta Vigo’s first team in a friendly since then) in a 2-1 win over Portugal, enough to win the competition with 7 points from a possible 9, and seal the Golden Boot for Sandro. A Spaniard also took the accolade of Most Valuable Player, but surprisingly it wasn’t one of Lopetegui’s players, but Canaria’s Fran Núñez, who plays for Las Palmas. Although virtually unheard of, he could be one to watch out for given that recent MVP winners include Óliver Torres and Sergio Canales.
Finally, Spain’s U17 side have also been very busy as of late, already having met up three times since the turn of the year. In January they played for the first time since passing the first stage of European Championship qualifiers, beating a strong Italy side 1-0 courtesy of a powerful header from captain Rodrigo Tarin (Barcelona). This week they held a training camp in Las Rozas, with Santi Denía calling up a whole host of new players once again and using it as a chance to experiment. They haven’t fully convinced in recent years so will need all the preparation possible, with the Euro Elite Round kicking off in March before the final tournament in May, should Spain get there for the first time in three years.