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2021 Under-21 EURO: Germany win first 16-team finals

Germany got to a third straight final and claimed a third title after winning a unique two-part event expanded to 16 teams in Hungary and Slovenia.

Tournament top scorer Lukas Nmecha lifts the trophy after getting Germany's final winner
Tournament top scorer Lukas Nmecha lifts the trophy after getting Germany's final winner UEFA via Getty Images

Germany 1-0 Portugal
(Nmecha 49)
Stožice Stadium, Ljubljana
The 2021 UEFA European Under-21 Championship was always going to have a different look as the final tournament grew to 16 teams, but it ended up having a unique form nonetheless.

Like any event of the time, the COVID-19 pandemic had a major effect on the competition's 2021 edition. Qualifying was postponed then reformatted, with the play-off round removed, and to avoid a clash with the postponed UEFA EURO 2020, the U21 finals in Hungary and Slovenia were split into two parts – a group stage played in late March, behind closed doors, and the knockouts held two months later, with crowds now allowed in and Germany beating Portugal in front of nearly 5,000 fans in Ljubljana.

Highlights: Germany 1-0 Portugal
Highlights: Germany 1-0 Portugal

Germany actually played most of their tournament in Hungary, and in Group A only squeaked through in a three-way tie behind the Netherlands by pipping Romania on overall goal difference, all three having defeated the home side. Slovenia, in their debut U21 finals, also found life tough as co-hosts, losing to Spain and Italy but in the middle holding Czech Republic 1-1 – being denied victory by a late own goal. That did not save the Czechs, however, as they finished behind holders Spain and Italy in Group B.

Group C in Hungary was dominated by an impressive Denmark side, who beat France 1-0, Iceland 2-0 and Russia 3-0. France won their subsequent two games to join Denmark in the last eight while in Russia’s 4-1 victory over Iceland, 17-year-old Arsen Zakharyan became the youngest U21 finals scorer.

Top five goals: 2021 U21 EURO
Top five goals: 2021 U21 EURO

Portugal won their three Group D matches in Slovenia with the same result pattern as Denmark, overcoming Croatia 1-0, England 2-0 and Switzerland 3-0. As it turned out, those last three sides ended on three points and on the final day England seemed to be heading for the two-goal win they needed against Croatia, leading 2-0 entering added time, only for Domagoj Bradarić’s spectacular finish to send the Croatians through.

Come the quarter-finals two months later, Croatia were in Maribor to play Spain and showed perfect timing again, with Luka Ivanušec converting a penalty deep in stoppage time to force an extra half-hour; however, Javi Puado’s second goal of the game gave Spain a 2-1 win. Also going to extra time in Ljubljana were Portugal and an Italy side who twice trailed by two before equalising in the last minute to make it 3-3. Yet Portugal would prevail 5-3.

It was epic too in Székesfehérvár where Germany equalised late against Denmark, who then pegged Stefan Kuntz’s side back in extra time to force penalties. Seven kicks each were needed before Germany triumphed 6-5. Only the Netherlands did not need extra time to win their tie, Myron Boadu striking in the 93rd minute to see off France 2-1 in Budapest.

2021 U21 EURO Skills Showcase
2021 U21 EURO Skills Showcase

That meant the two remaining teams in Hungary were Germany and the Netherlands and this time the drama came early in Székesfehérvár. A German passing move from kick-off culminated in Florian Wirtz scoring after 29 seconds, the fastest-ever U21 finals goal, and he added another on eight minutes, enough to eventually seal a 2-1 success. Portugal were to be their final opponents courtesy of a deflected strike ten minutes from time in Maribor which ended Spain’s reign.

Germany, into a joint-record third straight final, had lifted the trophy twice before. Portugal, contesting a third final overall, had never been champions but much of their squad boasted experience of winning U17 and U19 EURO titles. Ironically, though, Germany prevailed with a goal from a player who had previously netted a U19 final winner against Portugal – Lukas Nmecha. That goal had been for England in 2017; here, the Hamburg-born striker did the job for Germany to clinch a 1-0 victory and become top scorer on four goals.