Tournament co-hosts Italy couldn’t face a more difficult U21 Euros opener opponent in Spain, but the Azzurrini can take solace from getting a tournament favourite out of the way early on to really test the waters, so to speak. Spain, too, will be looking to get one over their Group A rivals on Sunday as they look to draw level with Italy and land their fifth championship.
Having finished runners’ up in Poland in 2017, Spain’s aim will be to go one step further this summer, yet there is staunch competition for first place. Along with Italy, 2017 victors Germany will fancy their chances of success, as will France and England, and it’s difficult to pick an outright favourite to secure the 2019 Euros.
Spain can at least call upon some decent recent form having lost only one of their last 15 matches, winning 13 of those, as they breezed through qualification, with their sole defeat coming in a shock 2-1 home defeat at the hands of Northern Ireland. Seven of the 23 players in Luis de la Fuente’s squad were part of the 2017 squad that lost to Germany and those included this time around will be keen to exact revenge.
In Antonio Sivera and Unai Simon, Fuente has two goalkeepers who ply their trade for LaLiga sides, though despite alternating between the two in recent months, it’s the more experienced Simon who is set to get the nod in goal. The Rojita boss was dealt a blow in the form of Pedro Porro, who has withdrawn through injury, with Martin Aguirregabiria and Pol Lirola to thrash it out for the right-back spot.
Elsewhere at the back, the defence picks itself, with Jorge Mere set to partner Jesus Vallejo at the heart of the defence and Aaron Martin to complete the backline in Fuente’s favoured 4-2-3-1 setup. Junior Firpo provides stiff competition for a starting spot at left-back having swapped allegiance from the Dominican Republic to Spain, but the 57-year-old is expected to keep with his tried and test defence.
It’s in the central midfield areas where Fuente has selection issues. In the form of Fabian Ruiz, Dani Ceballos, Pablo Fornals, Marc Roca, Igor Zubeldia and Mikel Merino, the U21 boss has six players competing for three spots, with it arguable that only Ruiz and Merino are guaranteed a starting spot in the XI.
Ruiz is able to play out on the left or right, but even so; Fuente has Mikel Oyarzabal and Carlos Soler, two natural wingers, to feature on the flanks, so it’s likely that Ruiz will occupy the number 10 spot in the side to maximise his creative quality. Indeed, of those aged 23 and under, Ruiz made more key passes (62) than any other player in Serie A last season and his flying form for Napoli has seen him linked with a return to Spain as Real Madrid kick their recruitment drive up a notch.
Napoli will be reluctant to sell one of their star men following just one season in Italy with the 23-year-old enjoying a fine debut campaign for Carlo Ancelotti’s side where he scored five and registered four assists for the second-placed Partenopei. Not only was he a creative force from midfield, but an excellent retainer of possession too having made more passes per 90 (81.3) than any other player aged 23 and under in Serie A last season as he reinforced statistically calculated WhoScored strengths of ‘key passes’ and ‘passing’ with aplomb.
Fuente is unlikely to partner Ruiz in holding midfield alongside Merino, though that’s not to say he couldn’t do a job here having returned 2.4 tackles per 90 last season, so it means Fornals is set to miss out on a starting spot, with the Napoli ace likely to feature behind striker Borja Mayoral. Here would allow Ruiz to pry defences apart and thread passes through to Mayoral and exploit the goalscoring calibre of Oyarzabal, who netted 13 league goals last season, and Soler on the left and right flank, respectively.
Mayoral’s record of 14 goals in 26 U21 appearances is also a boost for Spain and their chances of winning the tournament and having come on with seven minutes to go in the final two years ago, he’ll be looking to fire Spain to silverware. Crucial this summer though will be the performances of Ruiz. Having garnered ample experience with the senior side over the last year, he’ll now look to put that to good use for the U21s this summer as Spain look to move level with Italy as the competition’s most successful side.