Portugal began their U21 European Championship group stage campaign with a 1-0 win against Croatia at Bonifika Stadium in Koper. Fábio Vieira came off the bench to score the winner that puts the Esperanças in a great position to qualify for the knockout rounds.
Rui Jorge’s side were their worst enemies at times and there is plenty to improve on with two matches remaining. PortuGOAL’s Matthew Marshall breaks down the match.
Portugal Start Strong
Portugal started on the front foot, controlling possession and executing an effective high press that forced Croatia into frequent turnovers. It was the Young Blazers that would fashion the first chance however, Lovro Majer’s dipping effort tipped over the bar by Diogo Costa.
Portugal went close to taking the lead in the 24th minute with two quick fire chances.
Trincão beat two defenders and surged into the box, his cross falling to Tiago Tomás who saw his goal bound effort deflected wide off Martin Erlić’s hand. There was no penalty forthcoming as Diogo Queirós headed onto the post from the resulting corner.
Vitinha started to take control with a number of through balls causing Croatia’s defence problems. Pedro Gonçalves saw his shot saved before Vitinha found Gedson Fernandes who fired into the side netting from a tight angle.
Sandro Kulenović tested Costa from distance, but it was Adrian Šemper who was being asked more questions. The Croatian goalkeeper pushed Vitinha’s bouncing effort wide just before the break.
Substitutions Set The Tone
The start of the second half was lethargic which forced Rui Jorge to act. He made three substitutions in the 64th minute with Florentino Luís, Trincão and Tiago Tomás making way for Fábio Vieira, Francisco Conceição and Dany Mota.
It didn’t take long for them to make an impact.
Four minutes after being introduced, Vieira raced beyond Croatia’s defence, collected Dany Mota’s through ball and produced a classy finish past Šemper to give Portugal the lead.
Vitinha made way for Daniel Bragança and Goncalo Ramos replaced Pedro Gonçalves as the game entered the closing stages. Gedson found Diogo Leite behind Croatia’s defence, he fired over but it was job done as Portugal made a winning start to the group stage.
Rui Jorge couldn’t fit Fábio Vieira into his starting side, a harsh call against the Porto playmaker who had been Portugal’s best player in the qualification campaign. He was left out due to Trincão's return with Vitinha and Pedro Gonçalves both in the starting XI.
The stage was set for Vieira to come off the bench and play a key role. That he did with a composed finish to give Portugal an important win.
Florentino Luís’ loan move to Monaco hasn’t worked out with the 21-year-old playing 11 minutes of action in 2021. The lack of game time was evident with his passing below par, losing possession in dangerous positions and conceding fouls.
Daniel Bragança is one of the options to replace Florentino in the defensive midfield position but was particularly poor off the bench. Rui Jorge has little option but to stick with Florentino in the starting side and he will need to improve against England on Sunday.
Igor Bišćan’s side have plenty of talent in their ranks with Luka Ivanusec, Bartol Franjic and Lovro Majer all featuring for Dinamo Zagreb in their upset win against Tottenham in the UEFA Europa League Round of 16.
Portugal largely controlled the match however, and most of Croatia’s openings came from self-inflicted sloppiness from the Esperanças.
18-year-old Tiago Tomás made his U21 debut and performed well up front. He made intelligent runs, brought his teammates into play and was unlucky not to score before half time.
Dany Mota was the player sacrificed for Tomás, and like Vieira, had a lot to prove when he came off the bench. It was ironic that two of the important players in qualification who started on the bench were involved in the match winning goal.
Rui Jorge has plenty of options in attack and some tough decisions to make before they take on England at 9pm CET on Sunday. A win against the Young Lions and Croatia failing to beat Switzerland will send Portugal through to the knockout stage with a game in hand.
Portugal U21 Line Up (4-3-3): Diogo Costa - Thierry Correia, Diogo Queirós, Diogo Leite, Diogo Dalot - Florentino Luís (Fábio Vieira 64’), Vitinha (Daniel Bragança 73’), Gedson Fernandes - Trincão (Francisco Conceição 64’), Tiago Tomás (Dany Mota 64’), Pedro Gonçalves (Gonçalo Ramos 80’)
Unused substitutes: João Virginia, Luís Maximiano, Tiago Djaló, Tomás Tavares, Pedro Pereira, Filipe Soares, João Mário
[1-0] - Fábio Vieira 68'