Spain under 21s were beaten by England in the European Championship final in a match which featured Real Madrid’s Antonio Blanco as the lynchpin of the Spain midfield. It came in dramatic circumstances as ex-Barcelona forward Abel Ruiz missed a 98th minute penalty which would have levelled the tie which ended 1-0.
It came as a disappointment to Santi Denia’s side, who had been magnificent throughout the tournament. After beating Romania and Croatia without conceding, Spain then drew with Ukraine, who they would later beat 5-1 in the semi-final, while also beating Switzerland in the quarter-finals.
The final against England was the first game of the tournament in which Spain failed to score, with a goal in injury time of the first half from Liverpool’s Curtis Jones giving the Three Lions the trophy.
It meant that there would be no winners’ medal for Antonio Blanco, Real Madrid’s only representative in the Spain under 21 squad, as consolation, having missed out on the Segunda play-offs with his loan club Alavés to take part in the tournament. To make it even worse, Blanco’s frustration after the late penalty miss saw him shown a second yellow card on the bench, having been taken off on 83 minutes.
Antonio Blanco’s involvement
This game was a real test for Blanco, as he came up against a midfield three which had terrorised the tournament. Alongside Liverpool’s Curtis Jones were Lille’s Angel Gomes and Manchester City’s Cole Palmer, offering incredible offensive threat.
Blanco carried almost all of the defensive weight in the Spain midfield, as has been the case throughout this tournament. Alongside him in a double pivot was Villarreal’s Álex Baena, of Fede Valverde fame, but Baena was far more offensive, with Blanco more effective.
The 22-year-old midfielder was excellent throughout, denying space to the England midfield as they sought to create opportunities. Instead, they struggled to break through and resorted to moving the ball wide, with Palmer drifting to the right and Anthony Gordon leaving the more central role he had taken up at times in this tournament.
Blanco won all four of his tackles, more than any other player even attempted, and recovered possession five times. He had to restrain himself after a first-half yellow card for bringing down Gordon as the Newcastle forward looked to start a counter-attack.
He was also crucial in distribution, though England’s press prevented him from having some of the influence that he has in the previous fixtures when creating chances. In fact, the gamble to replace Blanco late on with striker Sergio Camello, was significant as the midfield outlet vanished with him.
It was more of the same from Blanco, who started every match of this tournament other than the 2-2 draw against Ukraine in the group stages which saw Denia rest and rotate his players.
Esto es lo que tiene que hacer más Antonio Blanco. Distribuir los balones para que la presión inglesa no sea asfixiante pic.twitter.com/rXkk7utNik— Sistema Blanco (@_sistemablanco) July 8, 2023
What’s next for Blanco?
Blanco’s future at Real Madrid is currently unclear. Having been virtually ever-present for Alavés, who secured a return to LaLiga at the first time of asking by winning promotion in the play-offs, his stock is high and the Vitoria-based club are just one of those who are keen to sign him this summer.
“I have one year left on my contract with Real Madrid, for the moment I have to go back to the preseason,” he told Relevo leading up to this final. “Then we’ll see if I go to a team directly or if I do the pre-season with Real Madrid, I don’t know at the moment. I have one year left with the club and we’ll see.”
However, while signs suggest that Real Madrid do not want to sell him permanently this summer, Blanco also claimed that nobody from the club had been in touch with him regarding arrangements for pre-season. AS have gone so far as to say that Real Madrid are planning to offer him a new contract upon his return.
Last summer, Blanco started pre-season with Carlo Ancelotti and the first team, but when the club left on tour, he joined Raúl’s Castilla team before departing on loan. It seems that his delayed return to action this summer, after a 12-month season, could mean that his future will be settled before he returns to Valdebebas.