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European U21 Championship: Hard to split high-class Iberian rivals

Portugal's fans have not witnessed a defeat in 90 minutes at this level since March 2015.
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Portugal take on rivals Spain in a crunch Group B contest from the U21 European Championship on Tuesday night. Mark O'Haire previews the second round of group games including Serbia U21 against Macedonia U21.

"The Portuguese have W12-D3-L0 since their defeat in the final on penalties two years ago, shipping just eight goals in those 15 outings"

Serbia U21 v Macedonia U21
Tuesday 20th June, 17:00
Live on Sky Sports

Serbia and Macedonia were both beaten 'to nil' in their opening U21 European Championship Group B games on Saturday but there were positives from both nations' performances despite their defeats.

Serbia failed to record a victory in their two previous finals appearances and their last taste of success in the competition came back in 2007 when reaching the final. However, their U20 age-group were crowned World Cup winners in 2015 and 11 of the squad are here in Poland.

Nenad Lalatovic's men lost star midfield man Sergej Milinkovic-Savic to injury pre-tournament but were still expected to provide both Spain and Portugal with stern examinations in an ultra-competitive pool. And despite their opening loss, the Balkan nation should be relatively pleased with their performance.

Serbia [1.64] suffered a 2-0 reverse to Portugal but arguably edged the encounter. The Iberians struggled to create many goalscoring opportunities whilst winger Andrija Zivkovic was the standout player on the pitch, brilliantly carving out the team's clearest chances.

Striker Uros Djurdjevic failed to convert a glorious first-half opportunity and Liverpool's Marko Grujic somehow contrived to nod the ball wide from point-blank range in the second period as the Serbians struggled to turn their enterprising play into on-target efforts.

In contrast, goalkeeper Vanja Milinkovic-Savic spilled a fierce cross to present Portugal with the opener on the cusp of half-time before Renato Sanches came off the bench to create the second goal and seal Serbia's fate.

Progression to the semi-finals now appears unlikely with Spain and Portugal already in a dominant position but I'm not expecting Lalatovic's troops to down tools ahead of their encounter with Macedonia in Bydgoszcz on Tuesday.

Rank outsiders Macedonia were hammered 5-0 by Spain but the underdogs showed good industry in the opening exchanges and looked determined not to allow their first appearance at a major finals to pass them by.

David Babunski and Boban Nikolov both tried their luck from distance early on before the Spanish took control and Macedonia's early promise began to wither against an onslaught of outstanding attacking play.

Babunski did rattle Spain's crossbar as Blagoja Milevski's side managed to fire in 24 attempts throughout the 90 minutes. In fact, the expected goals rating had Spain only winning this fixture 1.52 - 1.48 - highlighting the world-class finishing on show from the tournament favourites.

So although the final score suggests Macedonia were destroyed, I'm not willing to walk away from the rock-bottom Group B side just yet. More than half of their squad boast senior experience and it's worth reminding ourselves that this outfit also ousted a strong France side in qualification.

Macedonia [6.20] have repeatedly defied their doubters, fielding a relatively settled side that's based around a well-organised approach and strong defence. Gjoko Zajkov and Darko Velkoski formed a solid centre-back partnership and the underdogs reeled off a number of clean sheets in qualification.

The most capped player and top scorer Babunski came through the ranks at Barcelona and with both nations needing to go for it to keep alive lingering hopes of qualification, I'm happy to put my faith in an entertaining contest.

Serbia may have failed to net in three of their past five but there was enough encouragement against Portugal to suggest they'll be capable of grabbing a goal here. But the jollies have conceded in eight of their most recent 10 meaningful matches suggesting Both Teams To Score [1.81] could prove profitable against a lively Macedonia side.


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Portugal U21 v Spain U21
Tuesday 20th June, 19:45
Live on Sky Sports


Portugal and Spain meet in a crucial Group B clash from Gdynia on Tuesday night knowing victory for either side would almost certainly guarantee a place in the semi-finals.

Only the group winners are assured of a place in the final-four and both Iberian nations kicked-off their campaigns with victories. The duo are amongst the most fancied teams at the tournament and loaded with attacking talent - It means goals are likely between a pair of forward-thinking squads.

Goncalo Guedes and Bruno Fernandes grabbed the goals late on in each half to hand Portugal a 2-0 triumph over Serbia. Euro 2016 Young Player of the Tournament Renato Sanches, who had started Saturday's game in Bydgoszcz on the bench, set up the second for Fernandes two minutes from time.

Head coach Rui Jorge opted to start Fernandes and Ruben Neves in central midfield ahead of Sanches - and the decision almost paid off straight away as Neves struck the post with a cushioned left-foot volley from Fernandes' pinpoint set-piece early on.

Neves brilliantly controlled the game from his deep midfield position whilst Sampdoria midfielder Fernandes was at the heart of everything Portugal produced going forward, spraying passes all over the pitch and threatening from set-pieces.

In truth, Portugal were disjointed and second best for large swathes of the encounter, often appearing baffled by Serbia's tidy defensive system. Diogo Jota and Guedes struggled to get on the ball in dangerous areas but Fernandes' composed performance alleviated concerns.

Esperancas goalkeeper Bruno Varela was relatively untroubled throughout and right-back Joao Cancelo was particularly effective for the 2015 beaten finalists, who've now not lost in 90 minutes at this level since March 2015.

Meanwhile, Marco Asensio scored a hat-trick as Spain U21s opened their account by coasting to a 5-0 victory against tournament outsiders Macedonia. La Roja were 3-0 up at the interval as the 2011 and 2013 champions took control thanks to a series of ultra-clinical finishes.

Saul Niguez and a penalty from skipper Gerard Deulofeu completed the scoring for Albert Celades' charges but it was Asensio who made headlines. The forward seemed to be playing in a free role as he dominated every part of Spain's attacking play, scoring one of the best hat-tricks you're ever likely to see.

With Saul, Deulofeu, Asensio, Barcelona schemer Denis Suarez and Marcos Llorente filling the five positions behind Everton-bound striker Sandro Ramirez, it's easy to see why the locals back home have labelled this generation as Spain's latest dream team.

But before we go overboard on La Roja, it's worth noting that Macedonia actually out-shot the Spaniards 24-11, including 12-6 when only taking into account efforts from inside the opposition penalty box.

Celades' side had to settle for second spot in qualification Group 6 behind defending champions Sweden, before eliminating Austria on away goals to guarantee their finals place, adding to the notion that they're not quite as polished as the star-studded squad suggests.

Spain [1.98] are favourites to clinch victory with Portugal [4.10] chunky outsiders coming into this clash but arguably a more likely result is the draw [3.60] considering the underdogs' record of avoiding defeat at this level.

The Portuguese have W12-D3-L0 since their defeat in the final on penalties two years ago, shipping just eight goals in those 15 outings. The Esperancas have been silenced only once since the aforementioned loss and recorded 10 clean sheets in 13 competitive outings.


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