Walking back from work through the centre of Brighton earlier this evening, I noted that one of the pubs was advertising England’s semi-final in the Under-21 Euros against Holland last night. I was somewhat surprised by this. I mean, I know that it would be kind of nice for an England team to win something (can you believe that it has now been 10 years since “Le Tournoi”? 10 years!), but with England knocking seven bells out of the West Indies at cricket, Lewis Hamilton taking on all-comers in the Formula One (check out Stupid Stinkmund for more on this sort of nonsense) and Wimbledon just around the corner, you’d think that we’d have more than enough excitement on our plates, wouldn’t you?
Well, apparently not. The problem is that we don’t take the Under 21s very seriously in this country. As soon as a young player is deemed to have sufficient talent, he’s chucked into the England team without a second thought. Micah Richards, Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott are all notably absent from the England squad. You may not think that this is very important, but consider this: fourteen of the Italian team that won the World Cup last year had already won the European Championships for Italy at the Under-21 level. Their team was a team that had evolved together, rather than being thrown in at the deep end, under the sort of pressure that 99% of footballers never experience in their entire careers. England’s failure to take the competition seriously is reflected in their performance in it. They’ve won it once, in 1984, but had reached the finals just twice since then, and failed to make it past the group stages either time.
The quality of the Italians was on display when Wembley opened its doors last month for a 3-3 draw between the two sides. Too bad for England that they were drawn together in the finals, yes? Well… no, actually, because, in what counts as a pretty major surprise, England have knocked the Italians out and are through to the semi-finals, to be played tomorrow night. The finals are being held in Holland, and the hosts are facing them in the semi-finals. In the other match, Belgium take on Serbia. So, what have we missed so far, then?
Group A: Belgium, Holland, Portugal & Israel: Holland kicked off the tournament with a narrow 1-0 over Israel, courtesy of some terrible Israeli defending just ten minutes in. Belgium and Portugal then played a surprisingly entertaining 0-0 draw. The Portuguese had the best of the chances, and any watching Manchester United supporters may be scratching their heads over why United paid £17m for Nani. They’d come to rue their missed chances, after a 2-1 defeat against the hosts in Groningen. The Dutch took the lead through a very dodgy penalty on thirty-six minutes (though what the Portuguese goalkeeper was doing committing himself in the position that he was is anyone’s guess), and some terrible Portuguese defending gifted the Dutch a second goal through Rigters with fifteen minutes to play (they needed it, too – Portugal pulled one back with a splendid free-kick from Veloso, but had left it too late). Meanwhile, Belgium were excellent in beating Israel 1-0 after having Fellaini harshly sent off. Kudos, too, to Belgium, for having the best kit in the tournament – red shirts, black shorts and yellow socks is a great combination. Into the final round of group matches, then, and Belgium needed just a point against Holland to knock Portugal out, and they got it with a 2-2 draw. It all rendered Portugal’s 4-0 win against a demoralised Israeli team somewhat irrelevant.
Group B: Italy, Serbia, England & Czech Republic: In truth, England were poor against the Czechs in their opening match, and anything more than a draw would have been something of a miscarriage of justice. They had only a header from David Nugent (the world’s oldest looking 22 year old) which flashed wide to show for the first eighty-eight minutes of play. Thank heavens, then for Leroy Lita, who showed real Premiership class in missing his penalty with a couple of minutes to play. Some habits are difficult to grow out of. Italy started out as the favourites to win the tournament but were left with a mountain to climb after they lost 1-0 to Serbia. A well-taken goal from Milovanovic was enough to win that one. Serbia booked their place in the semi-finals with a late, late goal by Bosco Jankovic against the Czechs, whilst Italy continued to stutter with a 2-2 draw against England. It could have been even worse for them, after England raced into a 2-0 lead through goals from Nugent and Lita, but they pulled it back with goals from Chiellini and Aquilani. It’s worth pointing out that Lita missed a staggering chance in seventeen minutes in that one – miss of the tournament, for sure. UEFA are, of course, launching an investigation into reports of some pretty vile racist abuse launched by the Serbs against England in their final match. Leroy Lita, who played much more like a Premiership star in this match, gave England the lead, before Kieran Richardson doubled their lead to see them through to the semi-finals with a Serbian player down injured. Verdict? He was playing to the whistle. Why the Serbs chose to go for him rather than the referee is something of a mystery. Italy, meanwhile, were excellent in beating the Czechs 3-1 in the other group match, but results elsewhere had conspired against them.
There we go, then. All up to date. More to follow after the semi-finals.