Approximately 12 months previously, the German senior football squad completed a 7-1 World Cup Semi-final victory against Brazil in one of the most memorable games in living memory, yet on Saturday evening the under-21 team were beaten 5-0 by Portugal in the European Championship Semi-Final, a result which offers few hopes for the current crop of youngsters replacing their elders in the near future. Yet the comprehensive defeat should not disguise the fact that the invention and skill displayed by the Portuguese team was no fluke as they hope to be crowned European champions on Tuesday evening.
Although Portugal won each of their eight games in a relatively comfortable under-21 qualification group, their two victories in the playoffs against a useful Netherlands team indicated that they were serious contenders for the European crown especially as the scored seven times in those two legs. During the current tournament, they have conceded just one goal but until Saturday evening’s contest, just two goals had been netted by the team in the group stage.
Free from the shackles of group football, the Portuguese team reserved the best football witnessed at the tournament for the knockout phase with Germany the victims of a brand of attacking football which highlighted the ability of their conquerors in maintaining balance and for turning quickly. Portugal were 3-0 ahead at half-time with Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho and Sergio Oliveira amongst others dominating possession against a German team managed by Horst Hrubesch who once again changed his team and tactics in an attempt to stifle the opposition. Had Hrubesch played Leonardo Bittencourt and Amin Younes on opposite wings as per the 3-0 victory against Denmark, it may have been a different story.
As it happened, Portugal added two more goals in the second half and were afforded the luxury of withdrawing Silva early in that period with victory assured and the Germans totally bemused and disheartened by the brand of attacking football displayed by their opponents.
Portugal will start Tuesday’s final as firm favourites to beat a Swedish team continuing to cause a surprise by beating Scandinavian rivals Denmark 4-1in the other semi-final. The Danes appeared unable to cope with the work-rate of their opponents although Sweden were awarded a rather dubious first-half penalty from which John Guidetti opened the scoring.
Sweden have yet to concede more than one goal per game in the current under-21 tournament and will offer stern resistance in the face of the expected Portuguese onslaught. Although the teams drew 1-1 in the final Group B game, that contest was akin to a non-event with both teams assured of qualification in the event of a draw.
The European Under-21 final on Tuesday is now expected to be an intriguing contest between the attacking skills of Portugal and the hard-working efforts of the Swedes, with pre-tournament favourites Germany allowed to reflect on a tournament in which they threatened to dominate at one stage but must now face the inevitable critics at home.