U-21 European Championship Match days 5 and 6 Wrap: Italy, Spain Win Groups, England Fruitless
By Alex Fairchild
On the final day of the U-21 European Championship final's group stage, hosts Israel battled England in hopes of stealing the final spot in the semi-finals from Norway. In Group B, play was full of goals. A possible preview of the final took place when Spain battled the Netherlands, while two teams bowing out battled for an ounce of pride.
Group A: The hosts needed several goals to even have the chance to advance. With no hope of moving on, Stuart Pearce named a watered down side to take the pitch. First team regular Jack Butland was benched alongside captain Jordan Henderson and attacker Nathan Redmond. The trio disappointed in their two matches against Italy and Norway, in which they failed to create a goal from open play. Even though Israel needed the three points far more, the English dominated, peppering the opposition with 13 attempts.
However, the Three Lions did not find the back of the net. To their fortune, neither did the Israelis. Needing goal upon goal and a Norway defeat to advance, the result looked more bleak by the minute for the home team, who could not convert until the 80 minute mark. A gorgeous display of passing led to an Ofir Kreiff laser that beat Jason Steele's left side. It was pure delirium in the nation's capital. Guy Luzon, the Israel manager, rushed the pitch pumping both his arms in celebration.
There was no way back for Israel, as they had dug themselves far too large of a goal differential deficit, but they aimed to go out of the competition with a triumph against one of football's biggest names. They still had a glimmer hope, and Norway were struggling against Italy. With that game level at 0-0 at the moment of Kreiff's strike, the Norwegians battled on, needing only a point to guarantee their survival. Their reward came moments from the demise of normal time, when a seemingly normal free kick turned into an opportunity from the spot. Italian skipper Luca Caldirola dragged down his red counterpart Stefan Strandberg. The victim of Caldirola's crime punched in his penalty to the bottom left of goal, giving his side a 1-0 lead that they would relinquish in injury time. Andrea Bertolacci prevented Norway from taking first place in the group with an intelligent volley. After Norway's keeper batted the ball away, it fell to the half-time sub who, with his back turned to goal, hit the ball with the outside of his left foot. The shot barely evaded Strandberg's head, as it spun into the far side of goal seeing the Italians win the group. One point was enough for Norway though, and Israel were eliminated. The group's worst performance came from England. Similar to the team that took the U-17 version of the prize a few years ago, this squad could only manage one goal via Craig Dawson's penalty against Norway.
Group B: Spain and the Netherlands had secured progress, but faced each other on Wednesday. The defending champions rested attacker Rodrigo and Cristian Tello. Holland did not play several key footballers, including tournament star Georginio Wijnaldum, Luuk de Jong, and Ola John. In his red kit, Alvaro Morata scored for the third time in as many matches. In fact, it was his third winner on the trot. The Real Madrid striker started the first two games on the bench, before coming onto score. He was given a place in the starting XI against the Oranje and he made his country proud scoring 26 minutes into the match. Malaga playmaker Isco struck 6 minutes later. The pick of the bunch came at the death. A brilliant drag from Pablo Sarabia allowed him to crack open the Dutch midfield. He found Morata on the left. The goalscorer slotted a delicious return pass into Sarabia's stride. Getafe's youngster then drove a cross to the back post, finding Alvaro Vazquez to close the night out on a good note.
In a consolation match of sorts, Germany defeated Russia after being a goal behind. Senior finisher Alan Dzagoev opened his U-21 account at the same mark in the match as Morata. Dzagoev played a lovely give-and-go with Shota Bibilov, before he beat the keeper. However, Patrick Herrmann leveled the Germans after 8 more minutes due to some lazy defending from Russia's rearguard. The game was severely altered in the 39th minute. A reckless challenge from Georgi Schennikov saw Russia go a man down with more than half the game remaining. Schennikov's tackle won the ball from Germany's Tony Jantschke, but his high left foot caught the defender's right shin leaving the official with no choice. Germany capitalized on 69 minutes when Sebastian Rudy stole all the points from the Russians, who like England laid an egg in Israel.
The semi-final round takes place on Saturday. A clash between Group B winners Spain and Group A runners-up Norway starts the action. Italy and the Netherlands will battle to keep their hopes of European glory alive after the previous match's conclusion.