2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championship: Team of the Tournament
The European Under-21 Championship concluded on Tuesday, as Sweden defeated Portugal on penalties to lift the trophy for the first time ever.
We've already entered reflective mode, looking back across a wonderful tournament packed full of hope and promise to deliver the Team of the Tournament: the best players to grace the turf in Prague and Olomouc.
Get ready for a Portugal- and Sweden-centric XI, and to make it more fun, we've included alternate selections for each position to include a wider variety of players.
GK: Jose Sa, Portugal
It's not just because of the beard. Honest.
Jose Sa was, by quite a distance, the standout goalkeeper of this tournament. Portugal conceded just one goal in five games, and Sa's excellence between the sticks was a major reason why.
His solidity and safe hands jumped off the screen from the first game, where he hoovered up every single one of Harry Kane's shots with ease. He continued in that vein, catching everything in range, relenting only to Simon Tibbling in the 89th minute of the final group game.
Four clean sheets (against Italy, England, Germany and Sweden in the final) is one hell of a record.
Alternate: Jakob Busk, Denmark
RB: Pavel Kaderabek, Czech Republic
Scouts who turned out for the European Under-21 Championship will have immediately pinpointed Pavel Kaderabek of the Czech Republic only to find out that Hoffenheim had snuck in and sealed a deal for him on the day the tournament kicked off!
The right-back was at his marauding, attacking best in each of the three group games, embodying a defiant spirit within the host nation that came so close to qualifying despite being dismissed as a weak outfit before the tournament.
He scored the opening goal of the game, turning Jonas Knudsen inside-out before curling a delicious effort around the Danish goalkeeper's outstretched hand. He continued to threaten to such an extent that in the next game, against Germany, Horst Hrubesch fielded two left-backs to try and stem his tide.
Alternate: Victor Nilsson Lindelof, Sweden
CB: Paulo Oliveira, Portugal
As discussed with Jose Sa, Portugal were defensively superb in this tournament. Despite playing an expansive game with flying full-backs, they gave up few clear-cut chances and looked confident at the back.
Paulo Oliveira played every minute of every game as vice-captain of the side, putting in a number of key blocks and tackles—particularly in the latter stages—to keep the Esperancas' remarkable defensive record intact.
His importance grew as the occasion demanded it, and he excelled regardless of who his partner in defence was.
Alternate: Tiago Ilori, Portugal
CB: Jannik Vestergaard, Denmark
Denmark failed to figure themselves out in both midfield and attack, disappointing those who had pegged them as dark-horse contenders for the title. But defensively, they were pretty good, and that's largely down to Jannik Vestergaard's excellence from the centre-back slot.
He had to deal with rotating doors to his left, right and up ahead in midfield, playing with a different cast in almost every game they contested, but he was a pillar of consistency and did himself plenty of favours in terms of reputation-building.
Already an entrenched option for the seniors and closing in on 100 Bundesliga appearances for Werder Bremen, perhaps it shouldn't surprise anyone that he separated himself from the herd. A titan in the air and nearly unbeatable in a low block, he may not play at the highest level, but he's carved out a strong future for himself here.
Alternate: Daniele Rugani, Italy
LB: Ludwig Augustinsson, Sweden
Ludwig Augustinsson's performances at this tournament have earned him a transfer link to Liverpool, according to the Daily Mail, and while he's perhaps not at that level, it's a nice marker for how well he's played.
Being the best left-back at this tournament is, unfortunately, not the bragging point it perhaps should be. From Raphael Guerreiro's disappointing showings (bar the final) to Luke Garbutt's horror show, the "expected" top performers have all struggled for form in the Czech Republic.
But Augustinsson grew into the tournament and got better with each game, pushing forward to great effect against Denmark in the semi-final before committing to lung-busting overlaps throughout the 120 minutes against Portugal in the final.
He's hardly flashy, but he does what he's asked to do.
Alternate: Matej Hybs, Czech Republic
DM: William Carvalho, Portugal
Arguably the easiest slot to fill in this Team of the Tournament is the holding midfielder position, as William Carvalho has dominated in every aspect of the game.
No opposing player has had any change out of the Sporting CP beast, with Portugal controlling the tempo and flow of every game they've played largely thanks to him imposing his will in the centre of the park.
His excellent tournament started in Game 1, when he bossed England's midfield three, and it continued right through to the final, where his impact was key. The only blemish on his C.V. was the vital penalty miss in the shootout, but that shouldn't diminish a remarkable five-game set for the Poruguese.
Alternate: Ondrej Petrak, Czech Republic
CM: Oscar Lewicki, Sweden
Coming into the tournament, it was Oscar Hiljemark who had the more prominent reputation among Sweden's starting midfield set, but his partner—the other Oscar, Lewicki—shone brighter on the path to victory.
Lewicki, a diminutive, 5'8" nipper, ran his socks off, played an extremely tactile tournament and snuffed out opposing chances as if 11 lives depended on it. He managed 17 tackles and five interceptions, per WhoScored.com, and came up especially big against Portugal in both matches.
You'd think he'd be undersized and weak in comparison to many, even in his own age group, but his feistiness and desire levelled the playing field.
Alternate: Emre Can, Germany
CM: Sergio Oliveira, Portugal
The decision to take Sergio Oliveira off in the final after just 54 minutes will go down as one of Rui Jorge's worst ever.
He appeared to be moving freely and was, categorically, the best player on the pitch up until that point. Unless official word comes out that the midfield man was indeed injured, it may just go down as the decision that turned the tide of the game.
Oliveira, arguably the find of the tournament, was dictating the flow of the game and unleashing the power of Portugal's left side—just as he had in the previous four games. A smooth, uncomplicated box-to-box midfielder capable of making an impact at both ends, he's given Julen Lopetegui an awful lot to think about with regard to his inclusion in the FC Porto senior squad in 2015-16.
Alternate: Joao Mario, Portugal
AM: Bernardo Silva, Portugal
Bernardo Silva will likely end up scooping the Best Player Award from this tournament, and in our books, only William Carvalho can legitimately challenge his crown.
The Monaco schemer slipped between opposing midfield lines like quicksilver, wriggling free of challenges and creating opportunities in the most eye-catching manner.
He never lost the ball, even when challenged by two or three Swedes, and he developed a trait of luring them in before springing the ball into the space that opened up. His passing, dribbling and technique outright flabbergasted at times.
The only disappointment? Just the one goal in five games—after four in the qualifiers!
Alternate: Simon Tibbling, Sweden (not an AM, but the best remaining midfielder)
ST: John Guidetti, Sweden
John Guidetti ran and ran and ran some more in his attempt to close the opposition down during this tournament. He overcame several muscle strains picked up due to sheer fatigue in order to keep going and serve his country.
He scored two key goals at key points. First, he scored Sweden's first in the pivotal win over Italy, firing home after a melee in the box. Then, he grabbed another at a key point against Denmark in the semi-final, turning the tide of the match.
"Who thought Sweden could win? We believed from day one. We ran further than any other team," Guidetti told UEFA.com after the final victory, outlining the importance of hard work and tenacity.
Guidetti gave Sweden a hero's contribution.
Alternate: Kevin Volland, Germany
ST: Isaac Kiese Thelin, Sweden
Isaac Kiese Thelin is a very interesting prospect. He's worth an eye if you fancy keeping tabs on one of the surprise performances from this tournament.
It's evident that he needs to score more, but he's a remarkably intelligent striker who picks his runs, gets into dangerous areas and understands the flow of the game. He did his bit for Hakan Ericson with regard to off-the-ball running, but his best work came in his positioning and link-up play.
Thelin is a better overall player than the likes of Jan Kliment, who grabbed the Golden Boot with three goals. Perhaps his winners' medal is vindication of that fact.
Alternate: Jan Kliment, Czech Republic