This summer's European Under-21 Championships have been lit up by the performances of Dani Ceballos and Serge Gnabry. Ryan Baldi profiles the star players of Friday night's two finalists...
"With a World Cup on the horizon and Iniesta turning 34 next season, Ceballos couldn't have timed his rise to stardom any better. His hopes of securing a seat on the plane to Russia could be further boosted by the fact that Real Madrid are reportedly looking to take advantage of the bizarrely low €15 million release clause in his Betis contract this summer."
Spain will take on Germany in the final of the European Under-21 Championships in Poland on Friday in what will be a battle of the tournament's two outstanding teams.
In an all too familiar tale, Germany overcame England on penalties after a 2-2 draw in their semi-final, while the impressive Spaniards swatted Italy aside in a comfortable 3-1 win.
Iniesta heir is the Real deal
La Roja boast one of the most talent rich squads in the competition's history, with several full internationals at coach Albert Celades' disposal, including the likes of Saúl Ñíguez and Marco Asensio, who have both featured in Champions League finals already in their fledgling careers - such a wealth of gifted individuals has made Spain 17/20 favourites to overcome Germany on Friday evening.
However, for all the household names in the Spain side, it is 20-year-old Dani Ceballos who holds the key to their hopes of success. Saúl may have stolen the headlines with his hat-trick against Italy in the semis, but the Real Betis youngster was every bit as impressive, pulling the strings in midfield and constantly conjuring openings.
Ceballos has been a regular starter for Betis for the last two seasons and has steadily developed into one of the hottest prospects in La Liga. With his vision, technique, awareness, balance and mesmeric dribbling ability, the Andalusian playmaker is the heir apparent to Barcelona legend Andrés Iniesta as the creative fulcrum of the Spain midfield.
Against Italy, Ceballos was untouchable. Footage of one move in particular has been excitedly shared around social media, with the Betis star executing a majestic body swerve near the halfway line before dribbling beyond three opponents into the penalty area, where he set up Everton winger Gerard Deulofeu for a shot at goal.
These dribbling skills make Ceballos catch the eye - no player under 21 has completed more dribbles in the last two La Liga seasons than the 20-year-old (133) - but it is his vision, execution and flawless decision making that truly sets him apart. Reminiscent of Paul Scholes, the youngster appears to have an internal map of where every other player is positioned on the pitch at all times and is able to locate a colleague with the kind of first-time pass that most don't even see, let alone execute.
A dribble-heavy skill set such as Ceballos' would ordinarily see a player deployed on the wing or further forward as a No.10, but it is to the credit of the coaches that the player has encountered throughout his youth that he has been allowed to develop into the most cultured and creative of central midfielders. He is also no stranger to his defensive duties, adept at nipping opposition attacks in the bud with timely interceptions and tackles.
With a World Cup on the horizon and Iniesta turning 34 next season, Ceballos couldn't have timed his rise to stardom any better. His hopes of securing a seat on the plane to Russia could be further boosted by the fact that Real Madrid are reportedly looking to take advantage of the bizarrely low €15 million release clause in his Betis contract this summer.
Arsenal reject Gnabry back home and Bayern-bound...
Although Spain are rightful favourites, Germany, priced at 29/10, should not be discounted. Like his counterpart Celades, coach Stefan Kuntz is able to select from a cast of some of Europe's most talented youngsters.
Chief among them is former Arsenal prodigy Serge Gnabry. The Gunners sold the 21-year-old winger to Werder Bremen just a year ago, preferring to put their faith in Alex Iwobi, but the German so impressed in the Bundesliga last term that Bayern Munich have snapped him up.
Having been deemed not good enough for West Bromwich Albion while on loan at the Hawthorns in 2015, Gnabry has taken a huge developmental leap since returning to his homeland and now exudes the kind of confidence that makes him a deadly prospect for opponents given his innate talent.
The youngster bagged an impressive 11 league goals in 27 outings for Werder last term and quickly established himself as one of the most promising players outside of the Bundesliga's traditional big clubs.
Operating on the left side of Germany's attack at the under-21 Euros, Gnabry has demonstrated his newfound maturity in the way he appears happy to shoulder more than his share of the side's creative responsibility. Unafraid to come inside and look for the ball, drifting into central areas, the 21-year-old wants to be involved.
Dynamic and direct, comfortable with both feet and as adept at running in behind the opposition's defence as he is at receiving the ball to feet and dribbling beyond multiple defenders, the diversity of Gnabry's skillset is key to his unpredictability.
A scorer in Germany's opening game win over the Czech Republic, Gnabry will be hoping to add to his tally in the final. At the very least he'll be keeping he Spanish backline occupied.