Reds set to go head-to-head in Euro semi-final
Posted by nickogs20 on May 26, 2010
After their respective nations progressed from the group stage in contrasting fashions, United’s four representatives at the UEFA U17 European Championships are set to go head to head for a place in the final.
English trio Sam Johnstone, Tom Thorpe and Will Keane will all hope to be involved as the Young Lions meet France, for whom Paul Pogba has been a pivotal figure in the tournament so far and looks a certainty to be involved. The two sides will face off in today’s first semi-final at the Rheinpark in Liechtenstein’s capital Vaduz, with Spain and Turkey meeting later in the evening to decide the second finalist.
England’s progress to the last four has been impressively straightforward, three wins from three in Group B securing qualification for the knockout stages with plenty to spare. Going behind early on in their opening game against the Czech Republic was about as worrisome as things got for John Peacock’s side, but Jakub Plšek’s early strike was soon cancelled out by Everton’s Ross Barkley, who equalised after a great run and low cross from Keane caused havoc in the Czech defence. Chelsea’s Josh McEachran and Benik Afobe of Arsenal added further goals as England ran out 3-1 winners, with Johnstone and Keane in the starting line-up (the latter making way after 58 minutes of the 80 minute game) and Thorpe appearing as a late substitute for the last five minutes.
Keane and Johnstone were again named in the starting XI for the next game against Greece, Keane particularly impressing in an unfamiliar wide midfield role and Johnstone keeping a comfortable clean sheet in what was a nervy but deserved 1-0 win for the Young Lions, Barkley again on target. Academy Player of the Year Keane again made way in the closing stages as England looked to see the game out, while Thorpe didn’t see action this time.
That win secured a semi-final berth for Peacock’s youngsters and all that was riding on the final group game against Turkey was the group lead, with a first-placed finish and the chance to avoid red-hot Spain in the semi-finals a strong incentive. All the same, the England coach shuffled his pack and trusted some of his squad players to get the job done and they didn’t let him down, Thorpe this time starting as goals from West Brom’s Saido Berahino and West Ham’s Rob Hall earned a 2-1 victory and secured an impressive total of nine points from the group stage. Messrs Keane and Johnstone watched on with their feet up, rested for trickier tasks ahead.
In contrast, Pogba and his France teammates had to endure a rollercoaster week. Left on the bench for Les Bleus‘ opener against Spain with coach Guy Ferrier feeling he was not right “physically or mentally”, Pogba was introduced at half-time with his side trailing to Juan Bernat’s 24th minute goal and set about proving a point, ultimately laying on an equaliser for fellow replacement Anthony Koura with a sublime through-ball. Unfortunately that wasn’t to be enough, as the Spanish capitalised on a red card for French defender Wesley Yamnaine and grabbed all three points late on with a goal from captain Paco.
Desperately needing a win in their next game against Portugal in Eschen, Ferrier had clearly seen enough from Pogba in those forty minutes against Spain and included the 17 year-old in his starting line-up. The result was a first-half goal from the United youngster, which gave France something to cling onto as they saw themselves reduced to ten men midway through the second half and then nine men in the dying minutes. Cling on they did though, and that put them right back in with a shout of making the semis.
There were a number of possible permutations going into the final games in Group A, but France’s task was essentially clear – sitting level on points with the Portuguese, and holding the crucial head-to-head advantage after their earlier victory, Ferrier’s men just needed to match whatever result Portugal could achieve against a rampant but already-qualified Spain. Opponents Switzerland weren’t about to make it easy however and turned the qualification picture on its head when Aleksandar Zarkovic handed them a half-time lead – with Portugal holding their own at 0-0 in the other game, France were heading out as things stood.
Enter the influential Pogba. After a relatively quiet first-half, the quick-thinking midfielder caught the Swiss defence napping shortly after the break with a clever quick free-kick and Auxerre striker Yaya Sanogo grabbed what was to be the first of a quickfire double that would settle French nerves. As Koura added a third and news filtered through of two late goals for Spain to kill off the Portuguese challenge, France could breathe a collective sigh of relief as they coasted through the closing stages towards qualification and that semi-final date with England. The Young Lions may have been the more impressive unit so far, but with a goal and two assists, Pogba has been one of the tournament’s stars and will most certainly have to be watched.
Pogba spoke to uefa.com after his match-winning display against Portugal and seems content with life in the national team setup. “It’s always very good to get back with the French national team,” he said. “To see all the players, I enjoy it, especially when we win. We always speak together, joking, kidding, maybe seven in one room speaking and playing. It is a very good group, we are very happy in the team.”
The only member of the French squad to play his club football abroad, Pogba is in something of a unique position, but one he thinks is beneficial both to him and to Les Bleus. “It’s a real experience,” says the 17 year-old. “I didn’t know the language, it’s not the same style of game – more physical. But in France when I come back with my experience I can maybe add to the team.”
Meanwhile Sam Johnstone, taking part in his second U17 European Championships, has also been speaking to uefa.com along with Jack Butland, the Birmingham City keeper with whom he’s battling for the starting place between the sticks. Sam speaks about the experience of last year’s tournament helping him this time, that friendly rivalry with Butland and the imminent meeting with club colleague Pogba, of whom he boldly (and perhaps with tongue slightly in cheek) says “He’s a good player but we’ll sort him out!”.