DECLAN WARRINGTON / AIPS in PRAGUE: Sweden were crowned champions of the UEFA U21 Euro after a dramatic penalty shootout victory over Portugal.
The underdogs, written off since being drawn in the competitive Group B, defied the expectations surrounding the tournament favourites to make history as their country’s first winners.
Ultimately, following a goalless extra-time draw, they won the shootout 4-3 with goalkeeper hero Patrik Carlgren saving from both Ricardo Esgaio and William Carvalho.
Portugal, the tournament’s most impressive team, had played their finest football before the final, and were unable to regain that level when it mattered most.
The runners-up equalled the record of their 1995 team – the last to be labelled the ‘Golden Generation’ – but, like Luis Figo, Rui Costa and others before them, today’s team of William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva will consider this a missed chance.
Portugal began in the same style with which they defeated Germany so convincingly in the semi-finals. Joao Mario shot narrowly wide then captain Sergio Oliveira curled a 25metre free-kick against the bar.
But the early, inspirational goal would not come and Sweden breathed in relief. Simon Tibbling had a well-struck drive saved but it signalled a subtle shift in momentum.
Portugal began the second half with a familiar swagger but Sweden, ever growing in confidence, were the first to threaten when striker John Guidetti struck just over the bar.
At the other end Portugal substitute Toze forced a fine diving save from goalkeeper Patrik Carlgren – perhaps the tournament’s finest – but his introduction was among those which weakened his side.
Manager Rui Jorge also brought on Goncalo Paciencia and Iuri Medeiros in trying to win within the 90 minutes but, in doing so, sacrificed much of his team’s movement and variety.
Guidetti wasted two further fine chances to win inside 90 minutes but, as the whistle went to signal extra-time with the score 0-0, he and his team-mates looked both fresher and more confident.
Throughout extra-time both teams struggled to create convincing chances and penalties quickly looked inevitable.
There was to be one last dramatic turn when Toze’s penalty was judged to have crossed the line having also hit the bar and ricocheted out. When Carlgren produced the decisive save from Carvalho’s weak penalty all that was forgotten. Sweden had secured a 4-3 advantage and, with it, a historic victory.