With leagues all over Europe finally done and dusted, eyes will now turn to the U-21 Euros in Denmark. For it will be there that the some of the world's brightest young stars compete in a clash of contrasting tactics, styles and ability. The Euro U-21 trophy may be on the line, but the real rewards are exposure, recognition and a potential move to a prominent club. Something that Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira and Javier Hernandez have all exemplified in the aftermath of the World Cup.
Talent is in abundance
The curtain-raiser only served to prove that talent could be found even in supposedly weaker nations. Aleksandr Perepechko, who plays for Dinamo Minsk in the capital of Belarus, was a constant attacking threat with a string of well-taken shots on goal. He went on to loft the ball over 3 defenders for Skavysh to net Belarus' second. Commendable for a player who was only drafted in as a last-minute replacement. Credit is also due for Stanislav Dragun, who embarked on a marauding run and drew a foul in the penalty box.
Switzerland's Xherdan Shaqiri looked every bit worth the hype with a sensational performance against Denmark. His positioning was top-class, probing and drifting into pockets of space almost effortlessly. Always looking to play a teammate through or taking on the defence with attacking panache, he can expect a horde of suitors after his hugely impressive display. Countryman Innocent Emeghara, who is of Nigerian descent, had a match to be proud of. He provided an attacking impetus to Switzerland's already lethal frontline, frustrating the Denmark defence even further with his undulating runs with the ball.
Maxym Biliy- Supersub extraodinaire
The Ukrainian was the personification of impact subsitution. Within minutes of coming on, he slotted the ball past the goalkeeper to halve Ukraine's deficit. Ukraine seemed bolstered and psyched up by the late goal, with Biliy spearheading their resurgence. Writhing and twisting about in the Czech penalty box in search of the equaliser, his resulting shot on goal was well worked and well struck, but his single goal would end up being his contribution for the evening. Nonetheless, a starting berth could await him in the next match against England. A match that Ukraine cannot afford to lose.
Spain U-21s played much like Arsenal
While the much-hyped Thiago Alcantara did not hesitate to show traits of both Xavi and Iniesta, at one point leaving Mancienne for dead with a delightful shimmy, he couldn't completely break England down. Spain enjoyed the midfield dominance that they have become synonymous with, but could only manage a single goal (which perhaps took a leaf from Maradona's book) and limited chances for all the possession they enjoyed. Juan Mata, Ander Herrera and Javi Martinez were threatening and pleasing to watch, but that's all they were this time. Possession could not be converted into goals as well as the senior team have done to devastating effect. Something that they are capable of learning and mastering in no time.
The naivety of Spain's backline was a worry too. They were picked apart a little too easily on the occasions that England counter-attacked with pace and it was that aspect of their play that let them down. Spain were dominant by a mile and should have finished England off, but ultimately settled for a draw in a nonetheless entertaining game.
England have much to smile... and frown about
One simply has to admit that England were outclassed and picked apart by a ridiculously gifted Spanish outfit. However, Chris Smalling and Kyle Walker were shining beacons in England's draw. Smalling read Spain's incursions with classy anticipation and incisive tackles, denying their attackers with a stubborn persistence. Kyle Walker seemed to find joy in raiding the flank, leaving opponents in the wake of his marauding forays and electrifying pace on many occasions.
And it was Smalling who brought the ball forth into the midfield and fed it to Kyle Walker, who latched onto it, turned inside Didac Vila and picked out the prowling Danny Welbeck. Welbeck stroked the ball into position (perhaps while being marginally offside) and prodded the ball home to restore parity between the sides.
To be brutally honest, Jordan Henderson's work-rate was no saving grace for an essentially disappointing time in midfield. Though he didn't put a foot wrong, he barely put a foot right either. The young midfielder was forced to toil and exert himself, with sparing rewards and plenteous humiliation. He looked nothing like the 20 million which saw him switch Sunderland for the red of Liverpool. In his defence, his attempts to get his teammates running forth in attack were met with much reluctance and abstinence. Blotted out by Spain's possession game, his influence on the game was curtailed and very limited.
Yet another point of concern was the overall quality of England. Mancienne never looked settled in an advanced role and was dreadfully sluggish on the ball. England's attempts at passing the ball out of defence a la Spain were deplorable and met with a chorus of boos from the crowd. England spent most of the match getting pegged back and pressured, with occasional strokes of brilliance on the break.
The halcyon days of 1966 may seem even further away if things remain as they are.