Two goals by Adrián López, the first an 89th-minute equaliser, and Jeffren Suárez's spectacular drive earned Spain a semi-final victory after extra time against brave Belarus.
Article top media content
Spain had the predatory instincts of Adrián López to thank as they came from behind to defeat a brave Belarus side 3-1 after extra time in their UEFA European Under-21 Championship semi-final.
With Belarus making of mockery of their underdog status, Spain needed an 89th-minute equaliser from Adrián before the same player headed them in front and Jeffren Suárez clinched the win.
Yet for so long in Viborg, the two-time U21 champions were in trouble against debutant semi-finalists. Andrei Voronkov's acrobatic goal after 38 minutes, along with a remarkably disciplined team performance, looked like making possible Belarus's mission improbable against many people's tournament favourites.
There was unaccustomed hesitancy in the Spanish ranks from the start. Alberto Botía fluffed his lines after Belarus only half-cleared theirs, the defender caught between aiming his free header towards goal and trying to feed Adrián. Pavel Nekhaychik also failed to take advantage when the Spain defence reacted slowly to Maksim Skavysh's pull-back.
Fair to say Spain's tiki-taka football wasn't ticking along quite so nicely as during their victorious Group B campaign. Yegor Filipenko stuck to Adrián when Ander Herrera sent the tournament's top scorer clear, although Ander was centimetres from turning in Dídac Vila's cross. That Dídac chose to shoot from distance soon after, attested to the excellent work of Georgi Kondratyev's troops in protecting their back line.
Voronkov combined supporting frontrunner Skavysh with dropping back to reinforce a midfield in which Aleksandr Perepechko and Nekhaychik tucked inside to assist skipper Mikhail Sivakov and Stanislav Dragun.
Their reward came when Voronkov conjured the overhead finish after Sivakov applied the all-important flick to Perepechko‘s long throw. If the ball seemed to take an age crossing the goal line, it was time enough for the realisation of Spain's predicament to sink in: for the first time in the finals, they were behind.
The Spaniards' best first-half moment – Ander escaping the shackles to get a header to Iker Muniain's centre which goalkeeper Aleksandr Gutor saved – was a portent of their survival strategy. The template was the same when Martín Montoya dinked one of innumerable crosses into the Belarusian box and the inrushing Juan Mata somehow failed to glance it home.
Belarus's emergence from Group A with just three points had surprised some observers. They were also puzzling Milla's men, though it was a conundrum Spain looked capable of solving. Adrián struck the outside of the post from Dídac's centre before forcing Gutor into two smart stops. That said, much of Spain's possession came 25 metres from goal and with an obstinate opponent in between. When Dragun's run resulted in a half-chance for Skavysh, Belarus's growing self-assertion was clear.
Diego Capel, Jeffren and Bojan Krkić were introduced to provide the spark, yet Spanish fires appeared to have been doused until Thiago Alcántara supplied Jeffren to deliver a cross that Adrián flashed in at Gutor's near post. Kondratyev had called for a best-ever Belarusian display and it arguably deserved better than last-minute heartache.
After Mata had twice threatened to cause further upset, Adrián did precisely that by nodding in his fifth goal of the championship from Capel's enticing cross at the close of the first overtime period. Jeffren's fine drive seven minutes from the end finally sealed the issue.