Joy for James as England sneak into the semis
Posted by nickogs20 on July 25, 2010
Late, late drama in both Group A matches has seen England qualify for the semi-finals of the UEFA U19 European Championship in unlikely fashion and prolonged the participation of United duo Matt James and Reece Brown for at least another few days.
Noel Blake’s side went into their final group game against already-qualified France realistically needing a win to ensure progress alongside their cross-channel neighbours. A draw or even a defeat could theoretically have been enough for the Young Lions, but with the Netherlands – their rivals for second place – facing a pointless Austria in the other match and only needing to match England’s result, anything but a win was unlikely to be enough.
With the French having already qualified, coach Francis Smericki rested a few players with an eye on the last four but still named a formidable-looking side. Blake made changes as well, although more with a view to improving upon two somewhat disappointing displays in the first two games. One of those changes saw Reece Brown rather unfortunately replaced at right-back, having done little wrong against Austria or Holland, but Matt James retained the captain’s armband and a place in the ever-changing England midfield.
The Young Lions rode their luck somewhat throughout the first half as the French dominated proceedings but couldn’t find the breakthrough. That luck didn’t last too long after the break however, Lyon’s Yannis Tafer capitalising on non-existent marking to head past Declan Rudd in the England goal, and with the other game in the group remaining goalless, James and co. were staring down the barrel of an early exit.
Credit to England – at this point, they definitely raised their game, arguably above and beyond anything they’d produced in the tournament thus far. There was still a real lack of creativity and composure in the final third, but with France taking things relatively easy, Blake’s side were able to build up something of a head of steam with their pace and power. Nathan Delfouneso spurned a couple of one-on-one’s while centre-back Steven Caulker had a header well cleared off the line.
As time went on it began to look as though all England’s pressure would come to nothing, but that was before a couple of minutes that completely turned the qualification picture on its head. First news filtered through of a goal in the other game, and a big one as well – Austria had taken the lead, Djuricin netting from the penalty spot in the dying minutes in Mondeville. Back in Saint-Lo, frantic calculations were taking place to work out how that left the standings, with England, Austria and Holland all looking set to finish level on three points.
As it happens England would have come out on top in that three-way thanks to having scored the most goals, but before anyone had time to really be sure about that, the Young Lions rendered such permutations irrelevant as substitute Matt Phillips popped up at the far post to crash home a Ryan Noble cross at the second time of asking with effectively the final kick of the game. Austria held on in the other game and in the unlikeliest of fashions, England and their four-point haul had secured second place in the group and a place in the semi-finals.
As Matty James says in his latest blog for the FA’s website, getting that late goal and qualifying in that manner can only have given the squad a huge boost in confidence as they move into the last four, where they’ll face an ominous-looking Spain side who qualified with three wins out of three. The odds will be greatly stacked against England, with the Spaniards boasting the likes of Sergio Canales and Thiago Alcantara in their side and having produced some terrific football in the tournament thus far, but many – including coach Blake – feel that semi-final qualification alone is vindication after the ferocious criticism directed the way of youth football in this country over the past weeks and months. Whether that criticism has really been answered is open to debate, and should probably be re-assessed when England’s participation in the tournament ends. For now, they have a few more days at least in the north of France, and Tuesday’s semi-final in Saint-Lo is a terrific opportunity for those involved to make a real point.
The England-Spain semi-final is live on Eurosport 1 in the UK at 3pm, with the second semi between France and Croatia being shown on Eurosport 2 at 6pm. As ever, keep an eye on this site and the official UEFA site for all the news and information on the tournament.