In the searing Tbilisi heat, Sweden and the Czech Republic got the ball rolling at this 2017 UEFA European Under-19 Championship, and already players' eyes were glancing to where the nearest bottle of water was lying.
The old adage of letting the ball do the running could not have been more opportune, and it was with that in mind that the Czech side strung together nine passes before Denis Granečný opted to go for the jugular. His cross was turned back across goal by Libor Holík for Daniel Turyna to head in the tournament's opening goal. Chasing a game was the last thing anybody would have wanted inside a steaming Mikheil Meskhi Stadioni and, after Turyna's volley from the edge of the area doubled the Czechs' advantage, Sweden switched from 1-4-4-2 to 1-4-3-3 and finally found some joy. Captain Dusan Jajic, shifted into a more centrally advanced position from out on the wing, where the Czech full-backs had hitherto monopolised, was able to tee up Viktor Gyökeres for a consolation.
The heat was not as big an issue in the evening kick-off in Gori, where the rays from a setting sun were replaced by the fire created by 4,156 local fans as hosts Georgia faced a Portuguese side who prevailed with a controlled, possession game. The eagerness in the Georgian players could not fully mask a lack of experience at this level, while Portugal goalkeeper Diogo Costa was on hand to thwart every effort they did launch towards his goal with a string of spectacular stops. Portugal's patience was rewarded when Rui Pedro converted a penalty midway through the second half for victory.
Despite having to do without over 20 players who would otherwise have been contenders for a place in their squad, the Netherlands looked anything but down to their reserves as they came from behind to stun Germany 4-1. Built on the solid foundations of captain and deep orchestrator Justin Bijlow, whose intelligent reading of the game and commanding authority demonstrated he had more than just shot-stopping in his repertoire, the Dutch were also able to rely on a disciplined, well-organised defence. They may have been breached by Aymen Barkok early in the second half, but a whirlwind reaction which ensured German full-back Mats Köhlert in particular was left dazed and dizzy by the incursions of Che Nunnely and Javairo Dilrosun, saw the Netherlands tip the scales: Joël Piroe was the main beneficiary with a clinical hat-trick and Jay-Roy Grot added a fourth.
Earlier, England had made their intentions clear with early goals in each half catching Bulgaria cold, despite the aforementioned heat. Mason Mount and Ryan Sessegnon supplied the incisive strikes.
Portugal were the only side to secure their passage to the semi-finals with a game to spare as they defeated the Czech Republic 2-1 with another demonstration of their patient, organised build-up play. Like in their opening outing, both full-backs were heavily involved in opening the play with Abdu Conté impressing on the overlap. Their wing play was key to victory with the fresh legs of Rafael Leão setting up their winner, with Rui Pedro on target in consecutive games.
More than 8,000 streamed into the Mikheil Meskhi Stadioni to see the hosts end their wait for a first Under-19 finals win. The three Giorgis Arabidze, Kokhreidze, and Chakvetadze were instrumental as excellent interaction and team work, combined with skilful dribbling cut through the Swedish ranks. The Georgians' wing play had Sweden struggling – just as they had against the Czechs – and the almost incessant pressure they were subjected to forced errors which the hosts were only too happy to capitalise on to boost their confidence for their final group fixture against the Czech Republic. With back-to-back defeats, Sweden were the first team to book their flight home.
Germany heaved themselves back into contention with a 3-0 win over Bulgaria, which included two penalties. Germany coach Frank Kramer encouraged his full-backs to get forward and overlap, with the wingers regularly moving inside, deceptively making the field narrow for their opponents before support arrived. Indeed, it was a cross from the left which led to their opener for Etienne Amenyido, whose excellent movement, speed and technique were a major factor in Germany's win, with the number nine also earning both penalties, the first of which sanctioned a red card for Bulgaria just 19 minutes in. Kaloyan Krastev and Tonislav Yordanov worked tirelessly to try to rescue the game, but Germany proved too strong with the extra man.
England won the battle of Group B's opening day winners, eventually triumphing over the Netherlands with an 84th-minute Ben Brereton strike. Unlike in their game against Germany, the Dutch did not have time to turn the game around after falling behind, although with Justin Bijlow again outstanding in their goal, their coach Maarten Stekelenburg conceded that England had "just about edged it", although an early injury to Piroe certainly hindered their hopes. His eighth-minute replacement Jay-Roy Grot nevertheless showed with his active movement that the Dutch did have strength in reserve.
25,154 packed inside the Mikheil Meskhi Stadioni for Group A's decisive fixture between the Czech Republic and the hosts. The occasion may have been too much for the Georgians, though, as they were stifled by a better organised Czech side, whose defence seemed impenetrable. The Georgians' earlier gameplan of playing their way through was nullified by four strong Czech defenders, forcing the hosts to play down the wings. With arguably the smallest player on the pitch the target for their crosses, however, they lacked any incision, even if the delivery was invariably good. The Czechs used their height effectively in defending and also to open the scoring with Ondřej Šašinka left unmarked to nod in a corner on the stroke of half-time. Libor Holík then found space beyond the back post to volley in from a corner, ending the Georgians' hopes of recovering 20 minutes from time.
Already assured of group victory, Portugal coach Hélio Sousa made seven changes compared to his standard starting XI to face Sweden, and the difference was palpable. Sweden's penetrating long balls succeeded in unlocking the Portuguese defence before Sousa called for the cavalry, and his three substitutions saw order restored, reinforcing his team as they levelled the game at 2-2 and denied Sweden a first victory.
The picture in Group B heading into the final round of matches was much more complicated, although England ensured calculators could remain in pockets with another solid performance, especially in their midfield, with Germany succumbing to their second 4-1 defeat of the finals. Accurate, assured constructive build-up play with game-opening passes and diagonal balls penetrated the German rearguard with both Ben Brereton and Ryan Sessegnon finishing clinically. Germany briefly garnered some hope through substitute Tobias Warschewski's goal which made it 2-1, but their efforts – right to the final whistle – proved insufficient as they were eliminated in the group stage for the third year running.
Finally, the Netherlands – without the injured Piroe – were held to a 1-1 draw by Bulgaria, who picked up their first point of the finals. Biljow was again excellent in goal for a Dutch side, changed in just two positions from their defeat to England.
Biljow would blot his outstanding tournament in the semi-finals, though, with perhaps his one and only mistake of the tournament; one which cost the Netherlands a place in the final. Gedson Fernandes' strike did not appear irresistible but it somehow squirmed past the Dutch number one, who redeemed himself with some excellent saves in the second half, but was nevertheless inconsolable at the final whistle. The lack of the injured Piroe did not help the Dutch, who continued to attack predominantly down the wings, but found no taker of his ilk in the middle. The Portuguese also had most of their joy attacking down the wings, with overlapping full-backs, while rotation and interchanging of positions was used effectively to keep the Dutch second guessing as Sousa's men set up their third final after 2003 and 2014.
England would join them in making it to a third showpiece and first in eight years by beating a well-organised Czech Republic. Both sides had chances in a tight 90 minutes before the two substitutes Marcus Edwards and Lukas Nmecha combined for a winner in the third and final minute of stoppage time, breaking the Czechs' hearts and sealing England's eighth straight win in the tournament, teeing them up for a place on cloud nine.