Football Features

Spain’s Next Generation shines as La Roja beat Italy seal top spot

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:03, 20 June 2024

Spain sealed top spot in Euro 2024‘s Group B thanks to a 1-0 win over defending champions Italy.

With Albania and Croatia drawing in the day’s earlier fixture, this was winner-takes-it-all. Whoever won this game, if there was a winner, would seal top spot with one match to spare.

Spain had looked more convincing in their first game, a 3-0 win over Croatia, and against Italy La Roja showed that they should be considered serious favourites to win Euro 2024.

Although they only won 1-0, Spain were very comfortable in their victory and on another night it could have been two, three or even four. La Roja had 20 shots in total with nine on target and an xG of 1.9. Italy, on the other hand, had four shots and hit the target once.

And, at the heart of Spain’s performance, were three young stars with a combined age of 58. Nico Williams is the grandad of the trio, turning 22 two days before the Euro 2024 final. Pedri turns 22 in November, while Lamine Yamal is 17 on the eve of the Euro 2024 final.

Going into the tournament, all of the focus was on Yamal and all the records he could break. He has already broken two, becoming the youngest person to play and assist in a European Championship, doing so in Spain’s opener against Croatia.

He shone outside of the assist, and although there were no direct involvements against Italy, it was another performance well beyond Yamal’s years.

In his 71 minutes on the pitch, Yamal created one chance, made 18 passes in the final third, had one shot sail narrowly wide, completed four take-ons and had two touches in the opposition box. Yamal was very much the man in the build up for Spain, happy to share the ball around when some youngsters might look to make a name for themselves.

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Yamal is the current Golden Boy of Spanish football, but not too long ago that was Pedri’s title. And perhaps it should still be. Pedri is still only 21 despite feeling like he’s been around for years, though he did make his Spain debut in 2021. That came as part of a packed season that did hurt Pedri quite a lot, ruining his fitness and bringing injury issues that still plague the Spaniard today.

Pedri entered the summer having not played for Spain since the 2022 World Cup, missing the previous six international breaks through injury. He was thrown in from the start in friendlies against Andorra and Northern Ireland, playing an hour in each match and scoring twice against the latter.

There was another hour for Pedri, and an assist, against Croatia. He had 10 more minutes against Italy and, although he didn’t score or assist, this was Pedri closer to his best. He had three shots in total with two on target, and really should have scored at least one, posting a match-high xG of 0.65. Pedri also created three chances, made 16 passes in the final third and six touches in the opposition box.

But perhaps the young star of the night was Williams.

The Athletic Bilbao man had eight touches in the opposition box, more than any player on either team. He also created a match-high four chances, made 23 passes in the final third, put in five crosses and completed four take-ons.

It was Williams who brought the first goal too. Although he won’t get an assist for it, Williams was causing problems down the flank and put a dangerous cross into the box. It was nodded slightly on by Alvaro Morata and then touched by Gianluigi Donnarumma before being bundled into his own net by Riccardo Calafiori.

A moment to forget for the Italian defender, but a night that Williams stamped his name as one of the current and future stars of Spanish football, alongside Pedri and Yamal.