Lessons from the European U21 Championships as Sweden won it all
With the Euro U21 Championship complete and Sweden crowned as champions, John Brewin looked back at the final itself and a couple of key lessons from the tournament at large.
1. Battling Swedes deny golden generation
The Prague night sky filled with Swedish exultation once goalkeeper Patrik Carlgren saved William Carvalho's penalty, the 10th of Tuesday night's shoot-out. U21 Championship glory is Sweden's first ever junior tournament win, and one achieved against heavy odds.
Portugal's tear-soaked misery will take a while to abate since the best team in the Czech Republic blew it. Instead, the team with the best organisation and highest level of collective endeavour celebrated becoming continental champions. Sweden defended from the front, where the muscle of John Guidetti unsettled the calm that Portugal's defenders had enjoyed in their four previous matches. Captain Oscar Hiljemark in midfield and Alexander Milosevic in defence formed an indomitable spine.
The losers might feel better when they consider their nation's famed "golden generation," that of Luis Figo and Rui Costa, lost in 1994's final. Yet it's a small consolation for a country that places great importance on developing young talent and has such pride in its representative team.
Portugal's disappointment derived from familiar roots. Much like at the senior level, they suffered from having no true centre-forward. Ricardo Perreira and Ivan Cavaleiro are wingers converted into strikers. First-half domination did not deliver goals and Sweden dug in for a goalless draw, extra time and penalties.
2. Scandinavia seizes the stage
There will be life beyond Zlatan Ibrahimovic in Swedish football. Denmark, losing semi-finalists to their regional brethren after winning a group that contained Germany and the hosts, also suggested they might again compete with those due South.
Sweden were the best-supported team in the Czech Republic, which can only have assisted the manful efforts of their young heroes. Their players and the Danes will have been hoping to win the attention of clubs from riches leagues than those back home, but it is from their fine tournament performances that interest will be properly piqued.
For Sweden, Guidetti becomes a free agent on Wednesday, having been released by Manchester City after a loan at Celtic. He reminded fans of a rich talent that had clubs fighting over him as a schoolboy, also showing the stamina that he has often been accused of lacking. Denmark's Pierre Emile-Hojberg suggested why he is seen as a future midfield general at Bayern Munich, while Danish winger Viktor Fischer looked fully recovered from the injuries that stunted his development at Ajax last season.
Most of all, though, the Danes and Swedes reprised the teamwork and graft that has delivered those footballing nations' finest hours. Both nations played without entitlement and reaped success with that attitude.
3. Is Carvalho really ready?
Even before his costly, slack penalty, midfielder William Carvalho had delivered a hugely disappointing final performance. For a player who had dropped down from senior level to ballast Portugal's U21 team, it is of concern that his energy levels looked spent not too long after half-time.
Alongside playmaker Bernardo Silva, Carvalho had been the outstanding star of the tournament up to that point. In the semifinal, he had cruised through Germany in a 5-0 win, with Emre Can a particular victim, leaving the Liverpool man to make public apologies for eating a pre-match pizza. Strong performances by Portugal's midfield marauder in the Czech Republic had pushed him up the speculation ladder, with Arsenal the most recent link made.
Before the final, Carvalho had covered more ground than any other player at the tournament and passed precisely throughout, seemingly dispelling the doubts that have previously stopped Arsenal and other elite Premier League clubs paying the £20 million-plus Sporting Lisbon ask for his signature.
Yet Sweden's midfielders, who played with levels of aggression that Carvalho should expect to face in English football, made him look rather ponderous. It was a performance to make sense of the doubts, perhaps deepening them.
4. There'll always be an England
Perhaps the English might take note of the Swedish blueprint even if they were the only team to beat the eventual champions. It was another tournament in which early English optimism proved wildly misplaced. And a nation's world supremacy at hindsight evidenced itself in fine style.
Leading the post-mortem was England legend Gary Lineker. "We never learn," he raged on Twitter. "What a wasted opportunity to gather invaluable international experience. Exasperatingly amateurish approach!'"
While Harry Kane laboured without scoring, eligible players like Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley were instead picked for a dull friendly with Denmark and a group game in Slovenia when England's seniors are slotted for Euro 2016. Meanwhile, a group of players with the least top-level experience of all eight finalists struggled, passing the ball at glacial speed and defending horribly. Which is just like how their big brothers tend to play in tournaments.
Coach Gareth Southgate was left to make his excuses and leave the Czech Republic, though his job is rightly not under threat. He could only play with the cards he had been dealt, after all. This is England 2015, much the same as that which had gone before.
5. A small but deadly competition
It is less than 20 years since the senior European Championships expanded from an eight-team finals and the U21 version's twists and turns reminded that such a format offers no margin for error. The difficulty of qualifying meant that the Dutch, French and defending champions Spain did not even qualify for the Czech Republic.
Pre-tournament favourites Germany paid for two group game draws and were punished by having to play the Portuguese in the semi. There they were thrashed, a result that suggested Germanic dominance of the continent is not inevitable and that their post-Euro 2004 rebuilding programme is fallible. Those who seek to imitate it -- England, and lately Brazil -- might beware.
Italy followed a national tradition of starting slowly at tournaments and paid the price for saving their best to beat England 3-1 in their third match, only to lose out to the draw that took Sweden and Portugal through. Then, the final reminded that shocks can happen.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.