European Under-21 Championships – Group B Focus: Spain and Netherlands hold slender advantage

Spain and Russia kicked off proceedings in Group B of the European Under-21 Championships on Thursday before Germany and Netherlands met later in the evening. The Spaniards made a winning start to their defence of the tournament title, but were made to wait for their winner as the Russians stood firm in defence. However they couldn’t hold on forever and Spain clinched a 1-0 success.

Chances were at a premium in the game and Spain were looking frustrated by a combination of the Russians’ stubborn resistance and their own erratic finishing. That was until Julen Lopetegui’s team finally let their class shine through as Thiago’s whipped ball into the area from the right-hand side was cleverly back-headed into the net by second-half substitute Alvaro Morata.

Russia’s containment policy, though, was working brilliantly, with Spain being restricted to shots from distance for their best chances. Goalkeeper Nikolai Zabolotni was on top form for the Russians, saving first a free kick from the ever-threatening Thiago, before palming away a stinging drive from Aiser Illarramendi, who let fly from 30 yards.

On the other hand, Russian chances were few and far between and they were up against it from the start with Denis Cheryshev playing out of position as the lone striker in the absence of Alan Dzagoev and Fedor Smolov. However, Cheryshev tried endlessly to prove his worth to manager Nikolai Pisarev, setting up Pavel Yakolev, whose dipping volley dropped agonisingly wide in their best chance of the game.

If anything, this game did exactly what most pundits thought it would. Russia made it extremely difficult for their opposition, while making the most of their counter-attacks. Meanwhile, Spain played an expansive game, with some crisp passing and lovely interchanges between the midfield and strikers to eventually bag the win and get off the mark in the group at the first time of asking.

The second game of the night offered up Group B’s first real heavyweight clash, as Germany met the Netherlands. Both sides lived up to their potential in a thrilling five-goal encounter that ended in a 3-2 win for the Dutch after Leroy Fer’s 90th minute headed strike.

Cor Pot’s men will have been happy with the three points against a strong German outfit, but they will be less pleased at letting slip a two-goal lead. First-half strikes from Adam Maher and Georginio Wijnaldum put the Dutch well in charge at the break, before the Germans hit back in the second-half.

Sebastian Rudy lead the German fight-back with a strong finish from the penalty spot just after the break, before Tottenham’s Lewis Holtby gave them parity in the 81st minute. Rainer Adrion’s team looked like they could go on to win the game as injury time approached. However, Fer came off the bench to power home from a late corner to break German hearts.

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