Sweden defied the odds to clinch their maiden UEFA U-21 European Championship title with a penalty shootout victory in Tuesday's final against much-fancied Portugal. 24 years to the day since Portugal's previous golden generation secured their second consecutive FIFA U-20 World Cup win, with Luis Figo among their ranks, it seemed the latest talented bunch of *Seleção *youngsters would write their own fairytale ending, but the Swedes had not read the script.
The goalless final in Prague, won 4-3 on penalties by the Scandanavians, capped a thrilling fortnight of action at the Championship, which also served as Europe's qualifying tournament for next summer's Men's Olympic Football Tournament. Germany and Denmark, as well as the finalists, will be making their plans for Rio next summer, and each grabbed their Olympic spot by reaching the last four from an at-times tense and terse group phase.
Danes decisive, Portuguese pragmatic
Denmark and Germany emerged from Group A, which also included hosts Czech Republic and recently-crowned FIFA U-20 World Cup winners Serbia. A boisterous Czech crowd saw the hosts take the lead in the opening game in Prague, only for the Danish side to flip the fixture on its head in the second half, with Jannik Vestergaard and Pione Sisto goals seeing them to a 2-1 victory.
The Czechs recovered in their second game, impressively seeing off Serbia 4-0, but could not find their way to victory against Germany in their final match and were eliminated. The Danes ended up on top of the group, despite succumbing to a 3-0 defeat against Die Nationalmannschaft in their second match. Their 2-0 win against Serbia in the final group game, with Ajax starlet Viktor Fischer scoring, was enough to see them top the pool ahead of Germany whose 1-1 draw against the Czechs in their final match mirrored their opening 1-1 stalemate against Serbia.
A heavyweight Group B, which included record five-time champions Italy, two-time winners England along with previous finalists Sweden and Portugal, concluded with the seeming underdogs emerging victorious. A dramatic finale to the pool’s opening game saw Kiese Thelin slot home an 86th-minute penalty to secure victory for Sweden against Italy, while eventual group winners Portugal opened with a reasonably straightforward 1-0 win against a determined England side.
The second matchday set up a tense finale, with a late Jesse Lingard winner providing England’s first U-21 EURO win since Fraizer Campbell and James Milner scored in a 2-0 victory over Spain in 2009. With all four sides able to advance on the final day’s play in the group, each side knew what was required – and it led to a tense conclusion. England fell to a 3-1 defeat to Italy, two goals down within half an hour, while Portugal and Sweden played out a 1-1 draw in which Simon Tibbling’s late equaliser saw the Swedes into the semis along with the Seleção.
Portugal pummel Germans, Swedes win Nordic derby
The outcome of the groups set up two mouth-watering semi-finals. 2014 FIFA World Cup™ winners’ Germany’s next generation of talent were to face Portugal, whose dominant midfield made them a formidable opponent. The other semi saw a Nordic derby, with Sweden facing Denmark, and extra flavour was added ahead of the game due to pre-match comments from both sides. Surprisingly, both games ended up being fairly one-sided affairs.
Portugal stunned the Germans in a resounding 5-0 victory. William Carvalho put in a dominant display in the centre of the park as Rui Jorge’s side raced to a three-goal lead by the interval. To emphasise the talent throughout the Portuguese squad, five different players were on the scoresheet in a victory which Germany’s Emre Can labelled “a dark day for all Germany”.
The Swedes put their Scandinavian neighbours to the sword with a pair of quickfire first-half goals seeing them in at the interval 2-0 ahead. Despite Uffe Bech’s response in the second half, Robin Quaison and Oscar Hiljemark quashed that glimmer of hope for the Danes to win 4-1 and see their side into a first U-21 EURO final since 1992.
Then, to the finale, in which a pulsating and tense 120 goalless minutes led to the drama of penalties. Sweden's goalkeeper Patrik Carlgren was his side's hero, saving two spot kicks, including one from the otherwise masterful William Carvalho, to see his nation crowned continental champions.