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The Netherlands are through to their first UEFA European Under-21 Championship final after Nicky Hofs scored in extra time to settle a pulsating game marked by five outstanding goals in Braga.
Hofs had set the Dutch on their way with an individual effort in the sixth minute before Klaas Jan Huntelaar struck with the cutest of chips in the 38th. France replied in kind through Julien Faubert (51) and substitute Bryan Bergougnoux (85) to force extra time, where Faubert's dismissal for a second yellow card was rapidly followed by Hofs' decisive second in the 107th minute. The victory completed a remarkable turnaround for the Netherlands, who were exiting the competition with 16 minutes of their final group game remaining on Monday.
The France coach René Girard selected the team that set France on their way to Group A supremacy with an opening victory against Portugal, and quickly saw his first-choice side hit their stride as left-back Jérémy Berthod's pinpoint crossfield ball in the first minute found Yoann Gourcuff whose first touch allowed the ball to escape and a defender to clear. Les Bleuets went even closer from the resulting corner, Kenneth Vermeer reacting sharply to palm Jacques Faty's powerful header over his crossbar.
A third chance in as many minutes resulted in Florent Sinama-Pongolle charging into the box before failing to find a blue shirt when the situation demanded better. By contrast, Hofs was coolness personified at the other end as the tricky Feyenoord winger took advantage of Huntelaar's clever decoy run to cut inside from the right and drill a low left-footed shot into the corner of Steve Mandanda's net from inside the 'D'. Sinama-Pongolle then saw a shot charged charged down following Vermeer's fumble before Ron Vlaar denied the same player with a textbook sliding tackle when there was no margin for error.
With those openings having been passed up, nerves crept into French play as an unchanged Netherlands side began to demonstrate the confidence of a team given a second chance in this competition by their late elimination of perennial winners Italy. Romeo Castelen created the only goal of that 1-0 victory and became increasingly influential as the half progressed here too. Having attempted to beat Mandanda with an audacious chip, the left-winger then teed up Huntelaar to do exactly that from 25 metres as the AFC Ajax hitman became his country's outright leading scorer at this level - eclipsing the 15 goals of Arnold Bruggink and Roy Makaay.
France responded by introducing Lassana Diarra and Yohan Gouffran for Gourcuff and Sinama-Pongolle and halved the deficit within six minutes with the third outstanding goal of the game - Faubert leaping and twisting in one movement to head in Berthod's cross from the left. Huntelaar could have settled things in the 65th but headed wide and a Hofs shot met with the same result before the winger conceded a free-kick just outside the corner of the area for deliberate handball. Substitute Bergougnoux made him pay by stepping up to plant the set-piece high into Vermeer's net.
There was still time for Castelen, Gijs Luirink and Ismaïl Aissati to threaten for the Netherlands before Mandanda brought the 90 minutes to a close with a fine low save from the 17-year-old Aissati. Faubert saw red in the 103rd minute for striking out at Schaars, who promptly took advantage by dissecting the French back line with a super pass which Hofs skilfully turned in with the outside of his right boot.
Carlsberg Man of the Match: Nicky Hofs
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