Goals at the start and finish of the match from Aleksandar Kolarov and Dragan Mrdja took Serbia into their second UEFA European Under-21 Championship final in three attempts as they held off the challenge of a hard-working Belgium side in Arnhem.
Kolarov's fourth-minute free-kick evaded everyone to give Serbia an initiative they were never to cede in a tense semi-final, and when substitute Mrdja ran clear to add a second with three minutes left, a squad that includes eight players who lost at this stage with Serbia and Montenegro last summer as well as three who featured when the 2004 final went Italy's way, knew they would have the chance of another U21 showpiece. Belgium, particularly Marouane Fellaini, had their chances but too often their attacks foundered on the centre-back pairing of Branislav Ivanović and Duško Tošić. Serbia now take on the Netherlands in Groningen on Saturday night.
The previous game at this venue, between Italy and the Czech Republic on Sunday, had witnessed a fourth-minute goal and Belgium began as if seeking to better that. They could have taken the lead with barely 60 seconds played. Tom De Mul tricked his way down the left and, though Kevin Mirallas missed his low cross, the ball fell perfectly for Fellaini, back from suspension, who sliced over from close range. An early goal did arrive though at the wrong end from Belgium's point of view, as Dejan Milovanović was brought down midway inside the opposing half and Kolarov's curling free-kick deceived goalkeeper Logan Bailly – who was expecting a cross – and clipped the right-hand post to nestle in the back of the net.
The score rocked Belgium back on their heels and, without the invention of inspirational captain Maarten Martens – kept on the bench by knee and ankle injuries – they struggled to unpick Serbia's familiarly solid back line. They were largely restricted to long-range shooting, Anthony Vanden Borre flashing one such effort just too high, although the best opportunity of the opening 45 minutes again came at the other end. Djordje Rakić sprinted away on to Milovanović's through-ball but this time Bailly was alert to the danger and raced from his line to block the striker's first-time shot.
It took a last-ditch tackle from Jonathan Blondel to prevent Milovanović breaking clear at the onset of the second period, before the midfielder threatened in opposition territory, calling Damir Kahriman into action for the first time with a dipping attempt that the Serbia goalkeeper had to flick over the crossbar. That proved a sign of things to come as Belgium began to press forward and spurned a glorious chance to draw level a minute past the hour. Faris Haroun sprang the Serbia defence and sent Fellaini clean through, yet once more Kahriman was equal to the task and saved with his left leg.
Serbia hold out
Fellaini passed up another scoring invitation moments later, nodding Sepp De Roover's cross past the post when unmarked in front of goal, although Serbia captain Ivanović might have put the match beyond Belgium when he advanced upfield to skip past three challenges only to prod a shot straight at Bailly. Haroun then sliced Fellaini's knock-down harmlessly wide before substitute Mrdja confirmed that Serbia - European U21 champions as part as Yugoslavia in 1978 – would have the opportunity to be crowned kings of the continent again as he collected Milovanović's flicked header to slide a shot past Bailly.