The European Under-21 Championships get under way in a couple of hours time in Sweden. Looking at the composition of Group B, containing as it does, the bookmakers’ favourites – in Spain – and the dangerous Germans, who have in Mesut Ozil, one of the potential stars of the tournament, makes it difficult not to concur with Stuart Pearce when he says that England badly need to win their first game tonight against Finland in Halmstad.
England came so close at the last U21 tournament, losing an semi-final penalty shoot-out to the Dutch, and with the World Cup now less than a year away, there’s plenty of incentives for the young faces in Pearce’s squad to put in good performances. Just look at the way the two squads have proved interchangable. Joe Hart, who won his first senior cap in Germany at the start of the season, will be expected to keep goal tonight. Micah Richards might well have been a regular fixture in the full side had his performances not tailed off alarmingly for Manchester City and his likely partner in central defence tonight – should the impressive Nedum Onuoha miss out with a thigh strain – Michael Mancienne, has already caught the eye of Fabio Capello. James Milner and Gabriel Agbonlahor have featured in the senior squads, while the most memorable impact of all has unquestionably been made by Theo Walcott, whose face adorns the promotional literature for the tournament, and has shown the way for any other would-be travellers to South Africa next summer.
England will be able to field a side with plenty of top flight experience. Mark Noble is the most likely skipper in the absence of Onuoha and his presence should offset the loss of Tom Huddlestone, who has stayed at home to have his troublesome knee operated on. How Pearce utilises Walcott will be interesting. He could play on the right of a fluid front three with Adam Johnson providing natural width on the other side or as the conventional striker that many hope he will become as his game develops.
Anything less than a victory tonight against Finland and you would imagine that England’s stern test would be over almost before it has begun.
Right, I’m off to watch Brazil and Egypt.