Spain entrusts youngsters Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams with its Euro hopes

Thu, Jun 6, 2024
Soccer News (AP)

Spain entrusts youngsters Lamine Yamal and Nico Williams with its Euro hopes

While Spain will always be Spain, trying to deprive opponents of the ball with its possession-based passing game, its hopes of making a deep run at the European Championship will rest on a pair of young, fast forwards.

Lamine Yamal, who will turn 17 the day before the July 14 final in Berlin, will be Spain's wild card. Yamal should be given the freedom to create on the right flank, where he has shown in a breakout season at Barcelona that he is pretty much unstoppable if left with a sole defender.

Yamal became the youngest player to score in a European Championship qualifier in September, adding to his milestones as the youngest player to appear for Barcelona at age 15 and the youngest player to score in the Spanish league.

While Yamal is equally adept at putting in swerving crosses as he is at cutting past defenders to seek his own shot, he should have extra room with defenses stretched wide trying to keep up with Nico Williams on the other flank.

Williams helped Athletic Bilbao end a four-decade title drought by winning the Copa del Rey. The 21-year-old winger's speed in open space and ability to dribble at full throttle made him as hard to stop as Yamal.

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OK, BUT WHO SCORES?

The issue for coach Luis de la Fuente is what do to if Alvaro Morata doesn't finally rise to the challenge. The striker has 34 goals in 71 games for Spain, but he has never been able to excel at a major tournament and struggled to score for Atletico Madrid during the second half of the season.

If Morata is not in top form, then De la Fuente would likely have to turn to Real Madrid bench player Joselu Mato or Real Sociedad's Mikel Oyarzabal, the only other pure "No. 9s" on the squad. That, or deploy a more creative "false nine" like Dani Olmo.

"We have formed a very tight group, and that is the foundation from which we will take on this challenge," De la Fuente says.

He's trusting many players from his years coaching Spain youth teams before taking over the senior squad in December 2022.

NEW GENERATION

Spain will be aiming for a record-extending fourth European Championship. It drew a tough Group B along with defending champion Italy, Croatia, and Albania.

Spain made it to the final four of Euro 2021 where it was eliminated by Italy on penalties.

After a disappointing 2022 World Cup where it won one game and was knocked out of the round of 16 by Morocco on penalties, Spain got a confidence boost last summer when it won the Nations League after edging Croatia in a shootout. That ended an 11-year title wait.

This will be the first tournament Spain plays without any of the leading members of the golden generation who won the 2010 World Cup between the 2008 and 2012 Euros. Jesus Navas, the 38-year-old right back who was on the 2010 and 2012 teams, made the preliminary squad.

Holding midfielder Rodri Hernandez, who helped Manchester City win the Champions League for the first time last season, has taken the helm as team leader. Barcelona's Pedri Gonzalez will look to make the key passes in midfield, where the injured Gavi Paez will be missed.

Alejandro Grimaldo, a key player in Bayer Leverkusen's superb season, is an option at left back, where he could double up with Williams in attack. Another Barcelona teenager, the 17-year-old Pau Cubarsi, has impressed for his club and could get minutes in central defense. Former City defender Aymeric Laporte will have his form tested after his move to the Saudi Pro League. Athletic goalkeeper Unai Simon will be in the net for a third consecutive major tournament.

FEDERATION CRISIS

De la Fuente and his players have said they have not been affected by the scandals that have hit Spain's soccer federation, which runs the national team.

Spain's government set up an oversight board headed by former national coach Vicente del Bosque in April amid a corruption and money laundering investigation that has implicated former federation president Luis Rubiales and his predecessor, Pedro Rocha. They have denied any wrongdoing.

Spain's teams, however, have always maintained a distance from the chaos in the federation and its men and women have continued to win trophies.

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