Portugal beat Spain 1-0 in the 2021 European U21 Championship semi-final at Stadion Ljudski Vrt in Maribor. Rui Jorge’s side were second best for much of the contest, but defended resolutely and went ahead through a late own goal.
Fábio Vieira found some open space, surged forward and saw his cross deflected into the Spanish net by Jorge Cuenca. Portugal are aiming to win the tournament for the first time after being runners-up in 1994 and 2015.
Spain start strong
Spain started brightly with left-back Marc Cucurella enjoying plenty of space and combining frequently with Bryan Gil. Gil was looking dangerous and the winger’s crosses created Spain’s first two chances, Javi Puado heading wide before Brahim Díaz headed over the bar.
It took Portugal 15 minutes to fashion their first chance, Vitinha’s shot tipped over the bar by Álvaro Fernández.
Portugal’s best chance of the half came through Rafael Leão in the 29th minute. The AC Milan forward burst into the box and fired wide from a tight angle.
Leão ran into the box again and looked to have been taken down, but his penalty claim was denied and he was booked by Swedish referee Glenn Nyberg.
Spain regain control
Spain soon regained control with Brahim Díaz’s shot deflected wide and his next effort blocked. Cucurella was still getting too much room and combining with Gil to double team Diogo Dalot.
Brahim Díaz shot over the bar as he continued to cause Portugal’s defence problems but it was the Esperanças with the final chance of the half, Diogo Queirós shooting over the bar after a free kick.
Second half onslaught
Luis de la Fuente made a change at the break with Bryan Gil replaced by Juan Miranda and Cucurella pushing up to the left wing. If Diogo Dalot thought that would bring some respite, he would have been severely mistaken.
Spain laid siege to Portugal’s goal and created chance after chance. Cucurella hit the post with a drive from distance, Manu García’s shot was deflected wide, Jorge Cuenca headed straight at Diogo Costa from close range and Díaz shot wide.
Rui Jorge had seen enough
Rui Jorge brought on Florentino Luís for Gedson Fernandes in an effort to add some solidity to midfield, but it initially had little effect.
Juan Miranda forced a save from Costa, Díaz drove into the box and saw a penalty claim denied before Manu García burst clear and shot wide.
Jorge made a triple substitution in the 65th minute with Daniel Bragança, Rafael Leão and Dany Mota making way for Romário Baró, Jota and Tiago Tomás. Luis de la Fuente replaced Brahim Díaz with Yeremi Pino.
Portugal were now playing exclusively on the counter attack with Tomás the lone striker. They slowly started to see more ball and went close to creating a chance after Fábio Vieira released Jota. The decisive moment came not long after, in the 80th minute.
Fábio Vieira gets it done
Vieira was left wide open on the right wing, he burst into the box with his cross taking a wicked deflection off Jorge Cuenca and the underside of the crossbar.
Jorge brought Pedro Pereira on for Vieira to kill some time as Spain threw everyone forward. Portugal were resolute however, defending for their lives during the six minutes of added time and keeping the clean sheet intact to advance to the final.
Portugal were far from their best in Maribor, and the Spanish onslaught at the start of the second half had an ominous feeling about it. Rui Jorge had to act, and his triple substitution in the 65th minute alongside a subtle tactical switch went a long way to turning the tide.
Spain had scored in 15 of their last 16 knockout matches at the European U21 Championship. Keeping a clean sheet in a game of this magnitude against such a classy team deserves huge respect.
Diogo Leite played one of his best matches for Portugal and Abdu Conté justified his starting spot with a solid defensive performance.
Smells like team spirit
Vitinha praised the team spirit after the match: "We had to suffer a lot, psychologically and physically it took a lot from us. The spirit in the group is incredible, that was the reason why we reached the final."
"It was a very difficult game, of course we don’t play all our games against an opponent that is so well organised. It was important that we show we can play well even if we don’t have a lot of the ball. We knew it would be difficult."
Football proves time and time again that the best team doesn’t always win. Rui Jorge conceded that Spain were the better side for most of the game: "Spain were superior in the quality of the game. We had to defend deeper than normal and create opportunities on the counter attack."
"We had to show our maximum against Spain, a very strong team, and you have to recognise that there are strong teams in the competition."
Spanish boss Luis De la Fuente highlighted the quality of both teams and was philosophical as he looked at the bigger picture: "This could have well been the final. It was a game between two great teams and rivals. I am satisfied with the work we did, as I am with the future of Spanish football."
Portugal travel back to Ljubljana for the the final which will be played against the winner of Netherlands vs Germany. The final will be played at Stožice Stadium at 8pm BST on Sunday.
Portugal U21 Line Up (4-3-1-2): Diogo Costa - Diogo Dalot, Diogo Queirós, Diogo Leite, Abdu Conté – Vitinha, Daniel Bragança (Romário Baró 65’), Gedson Fernandes (Florentino Luís 52’) - Fábio Vieira (Pedro Pereira 90’) - Rafael Leão (Tiago Tomás 64’), Dany Mota (Jota 65’)
Unused substitutes: João Virginia, Luís Maximiano, Tiago Djaló, Tomás Tavares, Filipe Soares, Francisco Conceição, Gonçalo Ramos
[1-0] - Jorge Cuenca (OG) 80'