COMMENTARY | The Euro U-21 was always going to be Spain's to lose. Best on paper and ultimately on the pitch, the world's top footballing nation completed their perfect run through the competition with a decisive and well-earned 4-2 victory over Italy in the Final. For Holland, who were knocked out by Italy this past Saturday, this pre-summer tournament will serve as a reminder of how badly things can go when a gamble doesn't pay off.
Dutch coach Cor Pot changed his entire lineup for Holland's final match of the tournament's group stage, a showdown with Spain that the Netherlands used as more of a scouting mission than an opportunity to meet-up with what would have been an over-matched Norway side in the semifinal round. That decision resulted in Spain routing Holland 3-0 and the Netherlands having to play a one-and-done against an Italian team that was given new life in their first match of the tournament, a game against England that featured a goal that probably should have counted but didn't.
Italy seemed destined to play runners-up to Spain following that disallowed tally. Wins over England and Israel propelled them to an eventual group victory, and fate coupled with a bit of Holland misfortune pushed two well-struck Adam Maher free kicks just wide of the target in the semifinal contest. No luck was required for the lone goal of that match, as Fabio Borini deserved full credit for a brilliant first touch that was followed by a perfect finish that sent his team to the Final.
Those who suspected that Italy wouldn't be able to hang with Spain were proven right on June 18. A controversial penalty that shouldn't have been given doesn't erase just how well the Spaniards played on Tuesday night, as they earned the trophy while flashing the style they had exhibited throughout the competition. The biggest shame from the Oranje viewpoint is that we'll never get to see Holland's first-choice lineup play against the Euro U-21 champions, a game that most likely would have been a bit more competitive.
Pot's squad-selection techniques didn't just make for a more difficult route to the Final. It thoroughly eliminated all momentum Holland had acquired after scoring on eight occasions in their first two matches, and an attack that had been more ruthless than any other in the tournament made way for a toothless and largely lifeless side that couldn't find a breakthrough moment against Italy. It was, in hindsight, the mode of thinking that sinks a hot NFL team when starters are rested in Week 17.
Any and all feelings of disappointment aside, the future is very bright for Dutch football. The previously mentioned Maher in particular was a standout over the past couple of weeks, resembling a veteran ready to feature for his country's senior side. Only so many Eredivisie matches are available to us in the States, but this tournament alone showed me why teams such as Ajax and the two EPL Manchester clubs are (reportedly) in for the 19-year old star.
An in-form Dutch counterattack facing off against a Spain lineup that lives to possess the ball could have been a lot of fun to behold. Alas, we'll never know. I don't believe that the Netherlands are that far off of what remain the kings of world football at every level.
That they didn't get the chance to prove me right is too bad.
Zac has been covering Holland, Tottenham Hotspur, New York Red Bulls, Major League Soccer, the USMNT and other soccer leagues for Yahoo! Sports since 2010.
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