Spain qualified for the semi-finals of Finland 2003 in spectacular style after producing their best football of the finals to send Portugal packing 5-2 at the Ratina stadium in Tampere on Sunday. Goals from Cesc (2), Sanchez and Jurado gave Juan Santisteban’s team sweet revenge following their defeat in the final of the European Championship and sets up an exciting duel in the final four against Argentina in Töölö on Wednesday.
There was much anticipation ahead of the all-European, all-Iberian clash – not least because it was a re-match of the European U-17 Championship final won 2-1 by the hosts Portugal. But with the two goalscorers from that match – Marcio Sousa (2) and David - sitting on the bench, this quarter-final was always likely to be a much different encounter.
It was Portugal who got off to a dream start. Bruno Gama picked up the ball down the right flank, sprinted to the byline and sent over an inch-perfect cross that Manuel Curto, ghosting between keeper and defender inside the six-yard box, had the simple task to nod in his 5th goal of the finals, placing him one above Freddy Adu and Carlos Hidalgo, as the tournament topscorer (0-1, ‘3).
Spain, who like Portugal had packed the midfield employing a 4-5-1 formation, responded immediately and should have equalised a few minutes later. Giant centre-back Sanchez climbed highest eight yards out but headed the corner kick inches wide of the upright (‘7).
It was little Sisi, with his twists and turns down the right, who was leading the Spanish charge for the equaliser. The Valencia player was giving Tiago Gomes the run around and from a free-kick he had won close to the touchline, Sanchez made amends for his earlier miss by stealing space at the back post and side-footing the resulting Jurado delivery sweetly home (1-1, ‘28).
With the Scandinavian sun bursting through a picturesque sky, the Furia Roja were suddenly on fire. Sisi won another free-kick down the right and this time it was fellow centre-back Francis who met Jurado’s inviting centre. But, with the Portuguese defence showing just why they have conceded 14 goals in the finals so far, the Spanish captain inexplicably glanced his header wide (’42).
Second later, though, and the Spanish pressure was made to count. It was Sisi, capping a tremendous opening half, who skipped down the right and delivered a precise cross for Cesc to plant his header, text-book style, down past Mario Felgueiras and into the corner of the net (2-1, ’42).
With the momentum very much in Spain’s favour, Portugal coach Antonio Violante threw on his playmaker Sousa at the start of the second half. And the Porto man almost got his team level when his deeply floated free-kick was back-flicked by Francis over his onrushing keeper’s head and inches past the far post (’48).
But it was Santisteban’s new order who struck again to extend Spain’s lead. Cesc found space in the centre and was given the time to thread through a cleverly weighted pass to Xisco, who having slipped the attentions of his marker, fired the ball low and hard from 15 yards past Felgueiras’ despairing dive and into the far corner (3-1, ’50).
aving started the tournament off slowly, the Group D winners were really starting to show just why they are rated so highly. Xisco, Cesc and Jurado were tearing an already cut up Portugal diffence to ribbons with their darting runs and one-touch passing. After playing a one-two Xisco cracked stunning 25 yarder off the crossbar (’62). The Villarreal man, who was giving Paulo Ricardo a torrid time, spotted Jurado alone on the penalty spot, but the midfielder’s first-time right-footed strike was superbly pushed onto the post by the defenceless Felgueiras.
Spain made no mistake a few minutes later though. Xisco and Cesc played a delicious one-two for the latter to score his second of the game and third of the finals, side-footing home from eight yards (’78).
Vieira, who had shown only glimpses of his immense talent during the match, gave even more evidence that he could be a star of the future when he curled in a superb 22-yard free kick to reduce the arrears (4-2 ’87).
But it was Spain who fittingly finished off the scoring when Cases’ shirt was tugged in the box and Jurado, the only Real Madrid player in the starting line-up, struck the spot kick true and hard into the right corner of the net (5-2, 90+).
Portugal coach Violante had not excuses after the final whistle.
“We were beaten by the better side today,” he acknowledged. “We competed in the first half and could even have got back into the match when we were 3-1 down but Spain will be a tough team to beat.
“I could say we had no punch in attack or didn’t perform in midfield or made mistakes at the back but in the end, Spain were too strong for us.”
An ecstatic Spanish coach Santisteban refused to pick out any one player for praise.
“We were the better team by far but after what we witnessed today I think it’s unfair to select one player for special attention,” he said. “The players played as a team and did the thing I always advise them to do – to enjoy themselves on the pitch. More than anything, this is what stood out for me today.”
Right midfielder Sisi, who did most to bring Spain back into the match after going a goal behind, said he had no fears of playing Argentina, the country that effectively knocked Spain out of the previous tournament in Trinidad & Tobago, in the last four.
“I have seen Argentina play and in my opinion they are the best side in the finals,” he said. “But I think we are only getting better and I’m sure we are capable of beating them and of getting to the Final – it would be a dream.”