Tuesday, July 23, 2024

He who dares wins: History-maker Yamal leads scintillating Spain to Euro 2024 final

SoccerNews in General Soccer News 9 Jul 2024

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It is often said that international tournaments are not about playing the prettiest football, but the most effective, about finding a way to get over the line.

When France – a team that had only scored via a penalty and two own goals as they somehow ground their way through Euro 2024 – took an eighth-minute lead in Tuesday’s first semi-final versus Spain, it looked like those old adages might stand.

La Roja, and their wonderkid Lamine Yamal, had other ideas.

The 16-year-old Barcelona winger curled home a magnificent 25-yard strike to become the youngest ever scorer at a World Cup or Euros, before Dani Olmo’s fine touch and finish completed the turnaround by the 25th minute.

Spain had to show another side to their game in the second half as they dug in to hold off an improved Bleus side, but they were ultimately deserved winners.

Most who have watched them in Germany would agree they are deserving finalists, and they will surely approach Sunday’s Berlin showpiece – against either the Netherlands or England – as favourites.

Many of Euro 2024’s top sides have failed to deliver on the entertainment front, but Spain have done things a different way, led by a teenage sensation in Yamal.

Yamal’s historic moment

What were you doing at 16 years old? On second thought, don’t answer that.

You certainly were not scoring at a major tournament, because nobody – not even Brazil icon Pele – had netted at a World Cup or European Championships at that age, until now.

Pele had to wait until he reached the grand old age of 17 years and 239 days before making his mark on the big stage, scoring against Wales at the 1958 World Cup.

The fact Pele is considered to this day to have enjoyed the ultimate breakout tournament gives a sense of how monumental Yamal’s moment of magic was.

Particularly if La Roja go on to lift the trophy, it will become a byword for a prodigy bursting onto the scene.

The goal was certainly befitting of the history it made. Almost like a mirror image of Kylian Mbappe in an inside-right position, Yamal twisted once, twice… three times to shake off the attentions of Adrien Rabiot, before bending a wonderful strike beyond the reach of Mike Maignan.

His goal was not a bolt from the blue, either. He was involved in the build-up to Olmo’s winner, a clever reverse pass leading to the cross that was eventually half-cleared to the La Roja matchwinner.

Only Mbappe (four) bettered Yamal’s three shots throughout the game, and he was not too far away from a near-identical second goal when he cut inside to rifle over the crossbar in the second half.

He was also the only Spain player to create two chances, while he refused to be cowed by some rough treatment, his six duels won only being matched by Alvaro Morata among Luis de la Fuente’s players.

Only team-mate Olmo (three goals, two assists) has now bettered his four goal involvements at this tournament (one goal, three assists), while he ranks joint-first for chances created (16, with Christian Eriksen) and joint-sixth for dribbles completed (13).

Yamal has enjoyed one of the greatest breakout campaigns in memory, and must surely be among the contenders for player of the tournament honours.

He already has the moment of the tournament sewn up.

‘Tika-Taka’ evolves

Ahead of Tuesday’s game, Spain enforcer Rodri discussed the way in which La Roja had “matured” in their approach at this tournament, no longer prioritising possession for possession’s sake, but becoming more comfortable in controlling games without the ball.

Spain even had less than 50% of the possession in impressive wins over Croatia and Germany, and though that figure was back up to 58.1% versus France, they showed their adaptability in the second half.

La Roja only recorded one shot – Yamal’s long-range strike over the crossbar – after the interval, with France generating six efforts worth 0.57 expected goals (xG).

Yet in the first half, Spain led for shots (five to three), shots on target (two to one) and xG (0.73 to 0.43). Those may not be resounding figures, but they backed up their reputation as the tournament’s outstanding team, with Yamal and Olmo producing two pieces of incredible technical quality when it mattered most.

Spain lead all teams at the tournament for goals (13), xG (11.05), shots (106) and shots on target (38), yet they are no longer blindly committed to ‘Tika-Taka’, becoming almost as comfortable without the ball as with it.

Mbappe’s tournament Bleus

When Mbappe delivered the assist for Randal Kolo Muani’s opener – his 11th goal involvement in 12 major tournament knockout games for France – it looked like things may finally have clicked for the Real Madrid man.

His protective mask removed and playing against a 38-year-old Jesus Navas, who was on a booking within 14 minutes, Mbappe looked set to have a decisive say.

However, he did not see a clear sight of goal until the 86th minute, when he blazed comfortably over the crossbar with Spain’s defence in a panic.

His Euros ended with just one goal – a group-stage penalty against Poland – from 24 shots worth 2.95 xG, edging out the profligate Cristiano Ronaldo (23) for the most shots taken at the tournament.

Unsurprisingly, Mbappe’s shot conversion rate of 4.17% is the lowest of any player to have scored at this edition of the European Championships.

France may reflect on the broken nose he suffered against Austria in their Group D opener as the main reason for their attacking troubles, but they also suffered from a general lack of imagination in the forward areas.

Excluding own goals, Kolo Muani’s opener was their first non-penalty goal at the tournament, from their 87th non-penalty shot.

While France improved in the second half, Spain saw the victory out in relative comfort as their positive approach to the first half was rewarded.

It was a case of he who dares wins, and the Netherlands and England – both of whom have flattered to deceive thus far – might wish to take note.

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