A fascinating and unerringly free-flowing European U-21 Championships come to a conclusion on Tuesday evening, as Portugal face Sweden in a final which brings together two sides which stormed to surprisingly one-sided victories in the last four. They only met as recently as Wednesday, when a late equaliser for the Scandinavian team saw them progress from the group stage at the expense of Italy.
It was a result that suggests they are very evenly matched, and strong defensive records over the course of the tournament thus far would support that assumption. However, Portugal are seen by most observers as strong favourites thanks to the presence of more standout players in their squad, as well as the jaw-dropping manner in which they dismantled Germany on Saturday.
Germany had been the favourites before all the action began in the Czech Republic, but after two draws in the group stage, they self-destructed in unfamiliar fashion when they came up against Rui Jorge’s men. Portugal were relentless and more importantly ruthless, punishing several mistakes to put the game beyond doubt with plenty of time to spare.
Right across the pitch there have been top performers, but a lot of the attention has been on defensive midfielder William Carvalho. The Sporting Lisbon star is one of those customary protectors of the back four, carrying out his duties with supreme efficiency and representing a commanding presence. This competition has showed just why he is so highly coveted by the biggest clubs in Europe.
Teammate Joao Mario has also flourished, scoring twice in his four outings, while Bernardo Silva looks a tricky playmaker who may have the potential to become a quality player. If anything, the success the team has enjoyed in the Euro U-21 Championship is a timely boost for Portuguese football, at a point where Cristiano Ronaldo is carrying the senior side to an almost embarrassing extent.
Sweden have been written off more than once in their campaign, but have shown enough resilience not only to overcome the doubters but to suggest that they do have what it takes to pull off a minor upset in Prague. Few expected them to beat Denmark so convincingly in the semi-finals, going ahead through a debatable penalty, adding a second, and then holding off a fightback to grab two more late on.
They will take great inspiration and confidence from that, as well as their draw with Portugal in the final round of group fixtures. The only blip came when they lost to England in what was a cagey affair where they failed to pose much of an attacking threat. Former Manchester City player John Guidetti has great composure in front of goal and will provide a significant threat, as will Simon Tibbling, who has improved as the competition has gone on.
This is a match-up which has the makings of a close game, and it would be a surprise should this be as one-sided as the semis. Extra time and even penalties may be required, but Portugal would regard failure to succeed as a major disappointment. The last Euro U-21 final was a thriller, and the whole of the continent is hoping for something similar as these two sides vie for this increasingly prestigious title.
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