It took until the second-half of his 64th game of a long and arduous season to break Italy’s resistance, but Saúl Niguez looked far from jaded as he took aim with unerring power and accuracy to leave one of Europe’s other hottest young properties Gianluigi Donnarumma helpless three times over as Spain’s under-21’s marched into a third European Championship final in four attempts.
Hours earlier, an all too familiar tale for English football had unfolded in Tychy as Aidy Boothroyd’s side fell short of Friday’s final, losing out by a solitary penalty to Germany after an entertaining 2-2 draw.
That England even made the last four was considered some measure of success given their recent record in this competition and, most importantly, the limited expectations based on how little top level experience many of those representing the Three Lions in Poland have.
Yet, how different it might have been had the likes of Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling, Eric Dier or Marcus Rashford – all players eligible to be selected – been made available to Boothroyd.
England U21 v Germany U21 player ratings
The desire to avoid burnout just 12 months out from the World Cup is understandable, but only Dier played more minutes than Saúl for club and country during a season in which he scored in the Champions League last 16, quarter and semi-finals.
So is English football harming its chances of success further down the road by not handing its elite young players the same tournament experience enjoyed by their Spanish counterparts?
“I can’t say why others don’t do it, but it is great for us, we see the positives from it and we believe in what we are doing,” says Spain’s under-19 coach Luis de la Fuente, who is with La Rojita in Poland.
“It is beneficial first of all for the Spanish federation and for the players themselves because the evidence shows the results are fantastic.”
Indeed, a third title in six years on Friday will bring Spain level with Italy as the most successful European nation in under-21 football, whilst they also lead the way at under-19 and under-17 level.
“To have that experience, know those demands, everything complements each other. All of it is important and all of it is decisive so that these players can go onto be stars in the future.”
Some of them are even stars of the present. Spain’s run to the final started with another hat-trick from Marco Asensio, whose glorious treble in a 5-0 rout of Macedonia, came…