Captain Thiago Alcântara scored a hat trick – the first in an under-21 final – as reigning champions Spain successfully defended their title against Italy.
Ciro Immobile and Fabio Borini made the score respectable for Italy while player of the tournament contender Isco also netted from the penalty spot for his side, but Thiago stole the show with his treble.
The Barcelona midfielder had been on the scoresheet when Spain beat Switzerland 2-0 to take the title two years prior, and opened the scoring after just five minutes when the tournament’s top scorer Álvaro Morata showed great feet to make space out wide, before whipping in an accurate centre for his captain to nod unmarked into Francesco Bardi’s net.
Italy had been pegged back early, frustrating their counter-attacking style, although they replied almost instantly with a goal out of nothing. Centre-back Matteo Bianchetti sent a searching ball over the top of his opposite number Iñigo Martinez, where Immobile – who has won praise throughout the tournament for his movement and work rate – took the ball down well and clipped a lobbed finish over David de Gea. Not only had Immobile scored for the first time in the tournament, but de Gea had also conceded for the first time.
It was a great show of character from Devis Mangia’s side to restore parity against a Spain side unbeaten in 25 competitive games; and they had Bardi’s character to thank for not falling behind soon afterwards. Thiago slipped in a neat ball for Morata, who saw his shot across goal saved well by the Inter Milan keeper, before he did well to get down to a cheeky backheeled attempt by Atletico Madrid midfielder Koke.
Yet Italy had their chances, with Alessandro Florenzi showing exquisite technique to flick over Marc Bartra’s head and fire a volley at de Gea’s goal, but the Manchester United stopper was up to the task of palming it out for a corner.
But Spain showed exactly why they are the best in the world at both senior and under-21 level when Koke lofted in a perfect ball for Thiago to chest down and volley left-footed past Bardi. Regaining the lead was not enough though, when the referee had no choice but to award them a penalty five minutes later.
Cristian Tello raced clear down the left and when he was brought down by Giulio Donati, Thiago waved away Isco for the chance to complete his hat trick. The midfielder, born in south-eastern Italy, had no crisis of national identity when he put his spot kick away with a touch from Bardi on the way in to extend Spain’s lead to two before the break.
Spain were already well on their way to emulating the senior side’s superlative performance against Uruguay on Sunday thousands of miles away in Brazil, and had shown they can play the kind of football that the likes of Iniesta and Fabregas produced in that win.
Led by Malaga star Isco, they stroked around neatly after the resumption of play, although the first real chance went Italy’s way when Florenzi could only steer his snapshot well over the crossbar. Tello broke at pace from Thiago’s threaded through ball after the resulting goal kick, and picked out Isco only to see his finish end up wide of the mark before the sides traded chances through Tello and Lorenzo Insigne.
If the two-goal deficit was flattering Italy, then the Spaniards were hell-bent on widening the gap even further. And the chance to make the lead all but unassailable presented itself in the form of another penalty kick.
The Barcelona right-back was adventurous in his attack – much in the vein of clubmate Dani Alves – and when he was chopped down by Vasco Regini, there were no complaints when referee Matej Jug pointed to the spot. With Thiago’s treble already completed, he relinquished spot kick duty to Isco, who duly stepped up and sent Bardi the wrong way to put Spain further in the ascendancy.
The passing metronome began in the Spanish midfield with the eye-catching pair of Asier Illarramendi and Koke linking up well with Thiago and Isco, and when the captain danced around two tackles and Isco was able to slip Morata in, the Golden Boot winner should have made it five in five as he shot straight at Bardi.
Substitute Manolo Gabbiadini thrashed one over from 25 yards as Italy tried to find a way back into the game, and when Borini arrowed in a low shot beyond de Gea, all of a sudden Spain looked less comfortable.
But it was a case of too little too late for the Italians, as Julen Lopetegui’s team held onto repeat their success two years ago and once again be crowned European under-21 champions.
A hugely impressive tournament for Spain, whose dominance in world football looks all set to continue with this generation, with stars like Thiago, Isco and Morata sending the various scouts home with glistening reports.