A stunning golden goal from starlet Cesc completed a sensational Spanish comeback against Argentina to win 3-2 and land them a spot in Saturday’s Final against Brazil. After being two goals down at the break, the plucky Europeans turned the match on its head in a bruising contest in which both sides were reduced to ten men. Argentina, who fell at the same stage two years ago, must now meet Colombia in the play-off match for third place.

On a bitterly cold night, Argentina caught the Spanish defence sleeping with their very first attack. A corner was swung over from the right and with the Spanish defence believing the ball had gone over the goalline, Ezequiel Garay nodded the bouncing ball back for his captain Lucas Biglia to slot into the unprotected net. Everyone looked to the referee and then to the linesman but the goal stood to the joy of the drum-beating, confetti-throwing Argentina fans (1-0, ‘3). It was the second match running Spain had conceded an early goal.

Just as they had done against Portugal in the quarter-finals, Spain’s reaction was to throw everything into attack, caressing the ball around easily on the artificial grass and looking for the opening.

Their own captain Francis should have equalised five minutes later. A corner somehow reached him at the back post but the tall defender could not get the ball out from under his feet and the chance was lost.

Xisco was being his usual nuisance alone up front for Spain but it was the Albiceleste who almost doubled their lead moments later. Francis slipped in possession 40 yards out allowing Hernan Peirone a free run on goal. The San Lorenzo striker slipped the ball to Ariel Colzera but his low finish was too close to the keeper who saved well (‘14).

Juan Santisteban’s side rallied and came close on three occasions to the equaliser. First, the lively Jurado shot wide from 25 yards (‘15), next Xisco, giving the normally assured Garay one or two difficulties, half-volleyed just over from slightly closer in (17). Then, with most of the play down the right-hand side, Oskitz, who had switched flanks, beat his man brilliantly and delivered a tantalising cross which Xisco could not quite head over the towering presence of Oscar Ustari (‘26).

Argentina, now playing on the break, were looking just as dangerous though with Peirone just as much of a menace as Xisco. It was from his corner that Garay, leaping at the back post, headed powerfully onto an unguarded post and into the net to extend the South Americans’ lead (2-0, ’31).

The game was given just what it needed at the start of the second half – a Spanish goal.

After a patient build-up involving Julen Guerrero look-and-play alike Markel, the ball fell just inside the area to Cesc who produced a delightful curler into the top corner for his fourth goal of the finals. Incredibly, it was also the first goal Argentina had conceded in Finland (2-1, ’48).

The Furia Roja were now flying. Cesc almost scored a carbon copy of his goal after a jink down the left by Raul Llorente. But this time Ustari touched the shot over his crossbar (’51).They were so much in command now, Spain did not need the spur of seeing Argentina’s inspirational captain Biglia walk off the field clutching his shoulder.

“Biglia is fundamental to the team,” said Argentina coach Hugo Tocalli after the match. “After he left Spain simply dominated.”

ithin two minutes they were level. This time the break came down the right from the diminutive Sisi. Xisco nodded his centre down and Jurado drilled the sweetest of right-footers low into the corner of the net (2-2, ’53).

“I told them at half-time to show what I already knew they had: the desire and ability to turn the match around,” said Spanish coach Santisteban.

Three minutes later and the match swung even further in the European team’s favour when Cardozo was given his marching orders for a strong two-footed challenge on Ruz.

“The sending off certainly changed the way we played. It meant we were forced to defend,” said Tocalli.

Both sides could have grabbed the winner before normal time was up. Substitute Alejandro Faurlin saw his shot rise inches over Mandaluniz’s crossbar (’86), and another sub David could, and probably should, have wrapped things up for Spain on two occasions thanks to bursts down the left by the impressive Xisco. But it was not to be and Finland 2003 had its first extra-time.

After a pulsating 90 minutes, both young sides needed all the help the loud and boisterous crowd could give them. Jurado, whose immense skill had been on show all evening, turned on the edge of the box and sent in a screamer from 20 yards. It deserved to be the winner but took some paint off the wrong side of the post (‘95).

With Tocalli’s ten teenagers visibly tiring, Spain came even closer to the golden goal winner. Sisi delivered the precise free kick and another substitute, Arzo, jumping alone inside the six-yard box, headed over (‘102).

Jurado again came close with a chip (‘109) before Spain were themselves reduced to 10 men when Ruz was sent off for his second bookable offence (‘112).

Then, with the spectre of a penalty shootout looming, justice was done when Cesc beat his man on the corner of the penalty area and thrashed the winner high and handsomely into the top corner (‘117) to spark wild celebrations in the Spanish camp.

Typically, Tocalli was gracious in defeat.

“I think it was a fair result. Spain are an excellent side,” he told a packed post-match press conference. “It is no disgrace to go 2-0 up and be beaten. We are talking about 16 and 17-year-old boys here. The same thing happens all the time with adults.”

Spain’s coach Santisteban had a broad smile and evidence of tears as he spoke to journalists after the victory.

We always knew it was going to be a very competitive match,” he said. “I am just so proud that my players showed what they can do and turned the match around. In fact we could have won much earlier but we missed a lot of good opportunities and their keeper was, frankly, amazing.”

The emotion was almost too much to think about Brazil.

“They are probably the best team in the world in every category,” he added. “We will be without two full backs and after playing extra-time, the boys will be exhausted but we are going to give Brazil our best shot.”