Day one of the Under-21 European Championships has passed as Italy sit top of the Group A table as Stuart Pearce’s England nestle down in last. Here’s Will Burns and Sam Braik with a full round-up of the first day’s action.
ISRAEL 2-2 NORWAY
In the opening contest of the championships, the hosts Israel faced a spirited Norway side that played the majority of the game with just ten men.
With only a few minutes of stoppage time left, Norway’s substitute midfielder Harmeet Singh equalised forcing a tie in the opener of the Under-21 games, the most prestigious tournament to ever be hosted in the Jewish homeland.
The Scandinavians started the brighter but fell behind on 16 minutes when Israel captain Nir Biton kept his cool from the spot. Biton sent goalkeeper Orjan Nyland Haskjold the wrong way but goal did come very much against the run of play, as the Norwegians had the front footing for the opening quarter of an hour.
However, Israel held onto the lead for just less than ten minutes, when Norway’s Marcus Pederson scored a fantastic equalizer from just outside the box. Stefan Johansen clipped over a cross from the left towards target man Pedersen, who brilliantly held off his marker before swivelling to shoot to blast past Boris Kleyman to level the scores.
Norway had the momentum but Tor Ole Skullerud’s side found themselves down to ten men when Vegar Hedenstad was sent off just before half-time. The defender was dismissed after attempting to stop Mohammad Kalibat who was through on goal. Polish referee Pawel Gil deemed the challenge to be a professional foul and showed the Freiburg player the red card.
Despite having a man reduced, Norway conquered possession of the ball possession for the majority of the game but it was the host nation that grabbed the lead for a second time. The crowd erupted on 71 minutes when midfielder Alon Turgeman hit a wonderful goal to regain the lead.
Ofir Krieff’s pass was cleverly held up by Munas Dabbur, giving substitute Turgeman time and freedom to line up a powerful volley from inside the box. Haskjold had no chance of the stopping the shot. Norway snatched a point deep into added time from with a lovely goal from Singh.
Håvard Nielsen kept his composure and chest passed a long ball into the path of Singh, whose left-footed shot flew past Boris Kleyman and into the corner of the net. A fine finish from the Feyenoord man. It was a point well deserved for Norway, as they had hit the woodwork three times during the match, and went close on various occasions.
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ENGLAND 0-1 ITALY
Napoli winger Lorenzo Insigne’s sublime free-kick 11 minutes from time compounded a miserable week for all connected with England, as the Three Lions U21 side started their European Championship campaign disappointingly in Tel Aviv.
With some superb talent on show such as Jack Butland, Jordan Henderson, Insigne and Fabio Borini, this match was far from lacking in ability – despite England missing several potential U21 stars. However, the game itself was – much like the senior side’s Euro 2012 Quarter-Final, completely dominated by Italy.
Insigne was, from the off, the standout player and he smashed an early effort just past Butland’s right-hand post. The young Napoli ace then exchanged glorious passses with Ciro Immobile however as the little winger went through on goal Butland got out quickly and did just enough to put Insigne off, who lifted his lob inches over the bar. Despite the blatant warning signs England struggled to do anything about it as – much like their older brother, the senior side, they were so abjectly lacking the creativity of a Jack Wilshere.
Italy pressed and pressed, however after a shaky start the English central-defensive partnership of Craig Dawson and Steven Caulker held firm to deny Italy any clear-cut opportunities. As the first-half entered it’s latter stages, the Azzuri should’ve had a penalty as England defender Jack Robinson caught Allesandro Florenzi in the box, and Stuart Pearce’s side breathed a mighty sigh of relief as referee Antony Gautier waved play on. Indeed, England’s only bright spark of the half came from Nathan Redmond. The Birmingham winger skipped past challenges with ease and created the best opportunity of the half for the Three Lions as he danced through opponents before blazing hopelessly over the bar.
Minutes after the restart, the referee was again in the spotlight as he, perhaps harshly, disallowed Dawson’s header despite the goal being announced in the stadium. As Dawson looked bewildered, Gautier signalled that Dawson’s fellow centre-half Steven Caulker had pushed Inter Milan defender Luca Caldirola, seconds before Dawson powered home. However Italy grabbed their deserved winner on 79 minutes as Nathaniel Clyne fouled Italian substitute Manolo Gabbiandini on the edge of the box. Initially the referee pointed for a penalty before promptly deciding that it was in fact a free kick.
Italy were outraged but it mattered not as Insigne, the game’s outstanding player, clipped a beautiful effort off the inside of the woodwork that gave Jack Butland no chance. England will see this as one point lost despite the clear gulf in class on the day, and Pearce admitted in a post-match interview that England were ‘awful’. The Three Lions must now regroup and hope that some of their key players like Wilfried Zaha, Henri Lansbury, Thomas Ince and Danny Rose back for the Israel and Norway games – having missed this tie because of injury (Zaha & Lansbury) and suspension (Ince & Rose).
The sad fact is, however, that until England and The FA wake up, shake themselves and notice the glaringly obvious fact that the jump between junior and senior football is too much to take without a bridge, this will continue happening. Theo Walcott was effectively ruined after missing out on a real spell with the U21s, and I fear that stars like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck and Phil Jones may suffer the same fate.
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