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07/12/24 05:33:00

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07/12 05:32 CDT Yamal and Spain meet England in the Euro 2024 final. It's the best team against the most resilient Yamal and Spain meet England in the Euro 2024 final. It's the best team against the most resilient By STEVE DOUGLAS AP Sports Writer BERLIN (AP) --- One is the best team in the tournament, on the brink potentially of a new era of success because of a teenage wonderkid, an outstanding midfield and a tweak in philosophy. The other is a survivor, limping to the end with big moments, resilience and an oft-criticized coach who has another chance to end his country's long wait for a major men's title. The European Championship final between Spain and England on Sunday is dripping with narrative --- with one arguably standing out above the rest. Inside Olympiastadion, the historic venue in Berlin built by the Nazis for the 1936 Olympic Games, Lamine Yamal --- a day after his 17th birthday --- will look to crown his breakthrough as soccer's newest superstar by leading Spain to a first major men's trophy since the 2008-12 era, when it won back-to-back Euros either side of the World Cup in 2010. Yamal has been the shining light in a tournament where many of the high-profile figures --- Cristiano Ronaldo, Kylian Mbapp, even England's Harry Kane --- have underwhelmed. If his three assists before the semifinals hinted at his undoubted promise, Yamal's spectacular curling shot that propelled Spain to a 2-1 win over France in the last four signaled a new star had arrived. While Yamal and fellow winger Nico Williams now offer their national team a hitherto-lacking directness out wide, it's the central midfield that has given Spain the edge over all of its rivals. Rodri, perhaps pound-for-pound the world's most effective player, and Fabian Ruiz are the axis from which Spain thrives. Dani Olmo has joined them as the most attacking of pretty much a complete central-midfield three that England will struggle to contain. Spain topped a group containing defending champion Italy and 2022 World Cup semifinalist Croatia, before eliminating host nation Germany and Mbapp's France, for many the pre-tournament favorite. It's six straight wins for La Roja. No wonder they are being so heavily backed ahead of the final. "They have been the best team," England coach Gareth Southgate said of Spain. "... but we are there and from what we have shown to this point, we have as good a chance as they do." Indeed, Spain should not underestimate England, whose tenacity and character have stood out way above its quality of play at Euro 2024. The nation's most talented squad for 20 years has underperformed, looking unbalanced, short of ideas and in some cases fatigued, but has somehow scrapped through to a second straight European Championship final. Three years ago, England lost to Italy in a penalty shootout on home soil at Wembley Stadium, extending the birthplace of soccer's painful wait for a major men's title since its one and only at the 1966 World Cup. Southgate's team is back in the title match --- its first ever outside England --- and is an increasingly confident underdog, with potential matchwinners dotted throughout the team in Jude Bellingham, Phil Foden, Bukayo Saka and Kane. Someone has always popped up with a crucial goal --- Bellingham with the stoppage-time equalizer against Slovakia in the last 16, Saka with the 80th-minute equalizer against Switzerland in the quarterfinals, even backup striker Ollie Watkins pretty much exactly on 90 minutes against the Netherlands in the semifinals. Who will come to Southgate's rescue on Sunday --- if indeed someone does? "They are able to inflict a lot of damage, even without playing in a very fluid way," Spain defender Dani Vivian said. "But they have that quality that makes them able to produce those sparks." The smart money, though, is on Spain winning a seventh straight game to clinch a record fourth European Championship title. It would be a just end to a tournament where few teams really clicked apart from the Spanish, who have dovetailed a more ruthless attacking edge with their longstanding possession game that perhaps peaked in the Euro 2012 final when a team of midfielders --- notably Xavi Hernandez, Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets, Xabi Alonso and David Silva --- ran over Italy in Spain's 4-0 win. The class of 2024 might not have those names, but they'd be worthy successors. ___ AP Euro 2024: https://apnews.com/hub/euro-2024
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