"The four best countries in the tournament deservedly reached the semi-finals," claimed Serbia coach Veljko Paunović. But the defending champions were not alone in having to work hard to ensure that the form book would, ultimately, be respected in a fiercely competitive Group B. They were caught cold by the first corner of the tournament, allowing Mykyta Burda to head Ukraine into a 1-0 lead in the first minute. Although they equalised six minutes later and tested goalkeeper Bohdan Sarnavskiy to the limit, there was no further scoring. Against Germany, their tribulations continued at the other end of the clock. Having twice gone ahead, they surrendered two more points by allowing Niklas Stark to equalise during the first minute of added time. With only two points in the bag, victory was required against a Bulgarian side which had impressed with some attractive combination football. But it wasn't until the 90th minute that substitute forward Staniša Mandić culminated a counter by running at the keeper and beating him.
The goal spelt a sad ending to a tale of misery for Bulgaria. After conceding a goal in the first minute of their opener against Germany, they squandered chances to gain a foothold in the game and lost 3-0. A similar story against Ukraine produced 17 attempts and no goals, allowing another sub, Vyacheslav Tankovskiy, to sink them with an 88th-minute goal.
The Ukrainians, relying on the efficiency of a defend-and-counter strategy, had acquired the four points which guaranteed a FIFA U-20 World Cup place and were therefore not overly distraught to be beaten 2-0 by the Germans who, as coach Oleksandr Petrakov admitted, "were simply a better team".
There was less drama in Group A, where the first two matchdays sufficed to determine the semi-finalists. Hungary, egged on by passionate home support, threw themselves at the Austrian goal, only to allow their neighbours to capitalise on defensive lapses and forge 2-0 ahead within 20 minutes. A free-kick after the break compounded the hosts' misery and, in the torrential rain which made the second round of games difficult to play and to analyse, defensive lapses again proved costly, with two goals at the death inflicting a painful 6-1 defeat and equally painful media comments.
Curiously, Portugal's two late goals were celebrated by the Israelis, as they created a goal difference cushion over the hosts. Eli Ohana's team had also suffered a brace of defeats – a 3-0 loss to the talented Portugal side, followed by an identical scoreline against Austria on a waterlogged pitch which was not conducive to their short passing game. Austrians and Portuguese thus met in Felcsút for a fixture which allowed both coaches to rotate their squads and in which a goal four minutes from time earned Hélio Sousa's team a 2-1 win and first place in the group.
There was more at stake at Szusza Ferenc Stadion, where Israel needed only to draw with the hosts to secure a historic World Cup qualification. A solo run by Zsolt Kalmár put Hungary 1-0 ahead, only for Dor Hugy to meet a cross from the right to equalise. Three minutes later, a cross from the left was headed neatly into the Israeli net by Norbert Balogh and, contrary to expectations, the remaining 51 minutes produced no further scoring. Hungary had snatched the World Cup prize.
The semi-finals contrasted as sharply as the two groups had done. Austria coach Andreas Heraf admitted that, against Germany, "we showed them too much respect. We weren't in the duels. Their strength, power and technical ability were too much for us." A match which was largely one-way traffic yielded two Germany goals per half, registered by four different scorers, while their opponents failed to generate an on-target goal attempt.
It was deep into the Hungarian night before the other semi-final was resolved. Portugal, faithful to their 4-3-3 structure, could claim territorial advantage over Serbia's 4-2-3-1 in a fascinating tactical battle. But Paunović's team defended deep, countered fast and played with spirit and total commitment to cause. Tides ebbed and flowed but defences refused to be breached. Extra time produced more of the same, with the injury to goalkeeper André Moreira seemingly offering Serbia a notional advantage when the referee put an end to two hours of fruitless open play and decreed the start of a penalty shoot-out. But, after Mijat Gačinović had struck Serbia's first spot-kick wide of the mark and Predrag Rajković had saved from Tomás Podstawski to restore parity, it was substitute keeper Tiago Sá who donned the hero's mantle by making the decisive save from Sergej Milinković-Savić and put an end to Serbia's reign. Portugal had won the shoot-out 4-3 and were to join Germany in a final between the two teams who had been signposted as pre-tournament favourites.