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England U21s. Perennial qualifiers, but so often disappointing once they make it. And yet, for the first time since 2009, they have made a final and could win the UEFA European Under-21 Championship for the first time since 1984, when Dave Sexton led his side to three knockout victories over France, Italy and their 2023 opponents Spain.
Despite victory 39 years ago, Spain are firmly the U21 king of recent times. They have qualified for every tournament since 2009, were champions in 2011, 2013 and 2019, runners up in 2017 and semi-finalists in 2021. Having pasted an exciting Ukraine outfit 5-1 in the semi-finals, the expectation is that they will go on to secure their fourth championship in 12 years.
This has the potential to be a superb match-up between two nations that will provide some of the most exciting talent in world football over the next decade and victory would be welcome for youth career coaches Lee Carsley and Santi Denia.
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ENGLAND U21 VS SPAIN U21 PREDICTED LINEUPS
Lee Carsley able to call upon Max Aarons again
Lee Carsley made some bold calls to start this tournament and he has continued that throughout the tournament with Curtis Jones and Angel Gomes at the base of midfield, James Garner at right-back and Max Aarons utilised at left-back. That latter should return for the final following a semi-final suspension that allowed Luke Thomas the chance to play. Elsewhere, Jacob Ramsey is unavailable meaning Emile Smith-Rowe should continue on the left and a decision has to be made on whether Noni Madueke replaces Cole Palmer on the right.
Consistent Spain expected to line up same again
Santi Denia clearly had an idea of what he wanted from his squad in this tournament and it has played out to near-perfection for him. Removing the dead-rubber group game against Ukraine, Spain have played the exact same XI in their other four matches with the exception of a change at right-back, Arnau Martinez replaced by Victor Gomez. There are unlikely to be changes for the final, even against tougher opposition.
ENGLAND U21 VS SPAIN U21 TEAM STATS
England giving up opportunities despite perfect defensive record
The most impressive aspect of England’s run to the final has been that they are still yet to concede a goal. However, it hasn’t been plain sailing, England have given up as many opportunities on goal as they have taken, particularly in the later stages of matches when ahead and trying to fend off the opposition. The most impressive aspect of their game has been the ruthlessness of their attack – no side in the competition is more accurate in the final third than England. Keep an eye out for cards – England are averaging two per game.
Spain totally dominant
As we have come to expect from Spain and their sides at any level, control is paramount and that has shown in this tournament. No team has scored more goals, had more shots, more corners, suffered more fouls or had such a disparity between the number of shots taken and conceded. Keep an eye on the fouls situation, the Spanish are committing and suffering around 13 per game with opponents receiving two or more yellow cards in three of their five matches.
ENGLAND U21 VS SPAIN U21 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Morgan Gibbs-White key to England’s form
Lee Carsley made the decision to give Morgan Gibbs-White the captain’s armband before the tournament, and the man that made such a big impact during Nottingham Forest’s late run to survival has had a similar impact on England. Playing just off Anthony Gordon in England’s 4-2-4 shape, Gibbs-White has assisted three goals and scored the opener in the semi-final against Israel after a run into the box. He has also taken more corners than any other England player, raising the possibility of him scoring or assisting, at 7/5 a potentially decent bet.
Emile Smith Rowe proving himself
Emile Smith Rowe can perhaps count himself a little unfortunate not to have been part of England’s original XI but he has made the most of his opportunities, scoring in England’s opener, adding another against Israel and managing four shots on target from the four shots he has taken at goal. England have shown an ability to get bodies into the box when deliveries come in from wide and you can expect Emile Smith Rowe to be involved in the final third – he assisted Cole Palmer’s goal against Israel and is available at 9/5 to score or assist in the final.
Anthony Gordon a surprise leader of the line
Many people are still surprised that Newcastle United forked out the money they did to sign Anthony Gordon but the UEFA European Under-21 Championship is showing what the youngster is capable of, switching from a wide role to leading the line, showing a willingness to press, scrap it out and step up in the final third. The forward is England’s joint top-scorer with two goals, including the winner against Portugal in the quarter-final, while he is involved with the referee too – Gordon has committed five fouls and also drawn five fouls from opponents in his four starts.
Sergio Gomez showing something different for Spain
Premier League supporters will know Sergio Gomez as a young Manchester City player, nominally starting as a left-back. However, his youth career has been spent higher up the pitch and that is where he plays for Spain. The youngster has starred, scoring three goals and assisting two more. He’s pretty accurate with his finishing, hitting the target with 50% of his eight shots and he notably takes most of Spain’s corners too – 12 in four matches. He’s available at 3/1 to score or assist at any time.
Captain Ruiz leading by example
Every good team needs a decent player up top and Spain certainly have that in Abel Ruiz, the 23-year-old Braga striker. Ruiz has had the joint second-most shots in the tournament so far, a record that has yielded three goals and two assists in four matches, including one apiece in the semi-final hammering of Ukraine. Ruiz is available to score anytime at 11/4 – that could be useful against an England side that are giving up opportunities.
Alex A Baena in the backside for opponents
Alex Baena is 21. He’s already played Europa League and Europa Conference League football. He’s won promotion from the second tier and featured in 35 matches for Villarreal last season. Despite often performing as a winger at club level, he has played central midfield for Spain and bossed things. From his deeper position, he has taken ten attempts at goal in four matches (4/11 to have two or more shots) and he’s also in the thick of the action, committing six fouls but also drawing nine.
ENGLAND U21 VS SPAIN U21 MATCHUPS TO WATCH
James Garner v Sergio Gomez
The big battle will come down Spain’s left where Sergio Gomez has had a huge impact. He will face a slightly different job here, coming up against James Garner, the Everton central midfielder who has spent his time at right-back in this tournament. Garner has shown himself to be tidy in the ball and competent 1 v 1 but importantly, he has also stepped forward out of defence and forced opponents into fouls, drawing nine from opponents – Gomez has committed seven in four matches.
Curtis Jones vs Alex Baena
While both of these players are nominally deeper midfielders, the press from both sides means that the two deeper midfielders for each team will meet each other and tackles will be made. In Curtis Jones, England have a cultured midfielder who possesses real technical nous and a willingness to drive, which means he finds himself on the floor quite often, fouled seven times in four matches. Baena, meanwhile, has committed six fouls and suffered nine, clearly a target for the opposition he has played so far. This could be a good match-up.
Anthony Gordon vs Aitor Paredes
Two players that are happy to commit fouls and draw them. Anthony Gordon, 22, and Aitor Paredes, 23, are experienced personnel, the former having played a number of Premier League matches for Everton and Newcastle United while the latter is part of Athletic Bilbao’s side. Gordon isn’t afraid to get physical, committed and drawing five fouls in his four and a bit matches this tournament. Miranda has a similar record, committing and drawing four fouls in his appearances.
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England U21 vs Spain U21
Rodri has managed 10 shots in four tournament matches.
England conceded 11.8 shots per game.
Spain opponents received two or more cards in three of five matches.
Spain opponents average 2.2 cards per game.
England averaging two cards per game.
Gordon has committed five fouls in four starts.
Direct opponent Aitor Paredes fouled four times in four matches.
Ruiz has had 14 shots in this tournament.
Ruiz has managed five shots on target.
England giving up 11.8 shots per game.