A place in a second consecutive European Under-19 final proved beyond England in Saint-Lo yesterday afternoon, although their failure against an outstanding Spanish side hardly came as a surprise.
They were out-passed, out-manoeuvred and out-thought by a Spain team that goes into Friday's final in Caen seeking to bring home the trophy for the fifth time in nine years.
Technically, the Spanish appeared years ahead of England, who did not play particularly poorly but were still made to look ponderous, even clumsy at times. Spain resembled their senior counterparts, playing with movement and awareness that looked instinctive. Possession was rarely surrendered easily and moves were developed with bewildering speed and innovative skill.
Luis Milla, the former Barcelona and Real Madrid midfielder who coaches this generation, sat back and watched with contented appreciation as his players preserved their 100 per cent record in the tournament. Most of the group, built largely around the best of Barcelona's youth, have yet to taste top-level football in Spain yet many may be familiar names by the time the next World Cup finals come around.
Some of these England players may end up on the plane to Brazil 2014 as well but they have an awful lot of catching up to do. Noel Blake, the former Portsmouth and Leeds centre-back who coaches them now, exhorted them to work hard, press their opponents, keep their shape. But although he had the pleasure of witnessing some moments of quality from his team, notably the finish from Tottenham's John Bostock for the England goal, his was largely a hopeless cause.
The player most likely to have Premier League audiences chanting their appreciation next season will appear in a Liverpool shirt, imprinted with the name of Daniel Pachecho – the midfielder signed from Barcelona by former manager Rafa Benitez – who scored the first of three Spanish goals, all of which were of the highest calibre.
His came after 12 minutes, side-footed home after a move down the right involving Oriol Romeu ended with the brilliant Sergio Canales, of Real Madrid, cutting back a diagonal ball that Pacheco swept into the left-hand corner. The 19-year-old came off the Liverpool bench seven times last season, three times in the Premier League after a Boxing day debut. More will soon follow, surely.
The second Spanish goal, after 34 minutes, was even better – the consequence of a period of possession lasting a good two minutes, culminating in an explosive forward run by Keko, of Atletico Madrid and captain of this team, who exchanged passes with Pachecho before jinking inside bemused defender Steven Caulker and angling the ball past goalkeeper Declan Rudd.
The third goal, 11 minutes into the second half, was not quite as outrageous as Ezequiel Calvente's wrong-footed penalty against Italy in Spain's final group match but showed equal imagination after England had conceded a free-kick just outside the box on the left. England lined up a wall and Romeu ran up as if to take a conventional shot. But he veered to the left at the last moment as Thiago Alcantara, who was standing over the ball, lobbed it over the wall instead. Canales peeled away to receive the pass and slotted it past Rudd first time.
Before half-time, England had their own moment, one which lacked creativity in the making but had a touch of class at the end as the substitute Bostock met Carles Planas' clearance with a crisply timed volley that sped low into the corner of Alex's net.
Bostock was as influential as any England player after replacing the injured Nathan Baker. But there were others who caught the eye periodically, among them the Crystal Palace defender Nathaniel Clyne and the Aston Villa striker, Nathan Delfouneso, who has the English virtue of strength on the ball and showed some neat touches of technique.
The glimmer of encouragement on the English horizon is that their Under-17s beat Spain in their age-group final earlier this summer. Cause for optimism there, perhaps, although the surfeit of foreign players in the Premier League, which Blake lamented ahead of this tournament, remains a barrier to progress.
England (4-3-3): Rudd (Norwich); Clyne (C Palace), Thompson (Rangers), Caulker (Tottenham), Baker (Aston Villa, Bostock (Tottenham), 18); Cruise (Arsenal), Mellis (Chelsea, Noble (Sunderland), 59), James (Manchester United); Nouble (West Ham), Donaldson (Newcastle, Phillips (Wycombe), 71), Delfouneso (Aston Villa). Substitutes not used Nicholls (Wigan, gk), Brown (Manchester United), Malone (Southend).
Spain (4-3-3): Alex; Montoya, Bartra, Pullido, Planas; Keko, Romeu, T Alcántara; Canales (Koke, 69), Rodrigo (Rochina, 58), Pachecho (Muniain, 75); Substitutes not used Calvente, Aitor (gk), Mallo, Mayor.
Referee M Strömbergsson (Sweden).Reuse content