Emiliano Viviano was the hero as ten-man Italy edged out Portugal in a penalty shoot-out in Nijmegen to end their UEFA European Under-21 Championship campaign on a high note by claiming a place in the 2008 Olympic Games.
Both sides came into this game having won their final group games last weekend but finished third in their respective sections. Neither was able to reproduce the attacking flair they had shown in their previous matches, however, with clear chances at a premium in a tense encounter. Italy lost Giuseppe Rossi to a second bookable offence late in the second period of normal time but held on to take the game to spot-kicks where Viviano saved from Manuel Fernandes. When Antunes placed Portugal's fifth penalty wide of the post Italy – for whom Graziano Pelle, with a nerveless chip, Riccardo Montolivo, Domenico Criscito and Raffaele Palladino all converted – could celebrate their Olympic berth.
The Alex Gaudino song "Destination Calabria" with its persistent refrain of "Destination unknown" played a prominent part in the pre-match build-up, but these two sides knew their preferred next stop precisely: Beijing in 14 months. With such a prize on offer it was perhaps little surprise that the match began cautiously although Italy might have taken an eleventh-minute lead, Rossi flicking just over after Alessandro Rosina had found Marco Motta for the right-back to send in a low cross. Ricardo Vaz Té and Nani then missed the target for Portugal who, after spending much of the early exchanges on the back foot, largely controlled the second half of the opening period.
That territorial superiority nearly became a tangible advantage as Silvestre Varela cut inside from the right and unleashed a curling left-foot effort that slipped just past the far post. Seconds later Alberto Aquilani did likewise at the other end, although without the same air of menace, but Italy did come close to the opening goal again four minutes before the interval. Antonio Nocerino's pass gave Rossi the opportunity to sprint past three defenders but the forward could not beat goalkeeper Paulo Ribeiro, who blocked well before Antunes completed the clearance.
Nani was the first to threaten after the restart, swerving a shot just past Viviano's left-hand post, before the Azzurrini responded with a sweeping move from left to right involving Rossi, Aquilani and Rosina, the latter playing in Montolivo for a low angled drive Paulo Ribeiro blocked with his legs. Italy suffered a major setback 16 minutes from time as Rossi was dismissed after collecting a second yellow card for dissent though Portugal were unable to press home the numerical advantage, substitute Pelle twice and Giorgio Chiellini going close for Italy.
Nani opened the first period of extra time with another low shot past the post after a slick one-touch passing move before Miguel Veloso and Manuel Fernandes also sent efforts wide as Portugal pressed Italy back. João Moreira and João Moutinho were unable to take presentable opportunities early in the second additional half, before substitute Yannick Djaló blazed over with the goal at his mercy. Those misses proved costly as the Azzurrini, the most consistent side in Olympic history having participated in 14 Games, held their nerve in the shoot-out to continue their love affair with the event.