U-21 European Championship Match days 3 and 4 Wrap: Italy, Spain, Netherlands Advance, England Out
By Alex Fairchild
Three days gone, three teams gone.
The opening matchdays supplied some excellent finishes, but the subsequent two failed to live up to expectations. That is appropriate for the England camp, who are one of those sides that will be heading home after a consolation game on Tuesday against hosts Israel. In Jerusalem, the Israelis will need a miracle worthy of the city itself to overcome Norway's three point advantage over them going into the final day of the group play.
Italy 4-0 Israel: Until recent years, being the host of an international or continental tournament guaranteed a spot in the next round. In the last three years, that has not been the case, as South Africa crashed out of their World Cup in 2010, and joint-MCs Poland and Ukraine ducked for cover during Euro 2012 after three games. While the U-21 European Championship is not up to the stature of either of the above tournaments, the last entertainer, Denmark, failed to make it out of their group in 2011.
It looks like Israel will fall by the wayside unless they provide a victory against England in lieu of a Norwegian defeat. The stars may align for the team, as they face the team's weakest group thus far and the team they must top will take on the section's strongest XI. But can Nir Biton, Mohammad Kailibat, and Ofir Krieff really match up against Jordan Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey, and Wilfried Zaha?
Probably not, especially after their sorrowing display against the Italians. In Tel Aviv, Israel failed to produce a shot on target. Their defense lagged as well, as they gave up a textbook goal on 18 minutes when a Ciro Immobile lay-off was buried by Riccardo Saponara.
Eyal Golasa did his team no favor when he saw red 37 minutes in to the match. His squad paid for his mistake moments later, as Ciro played creator again to create an easy finish for Manolo Gabbiadini, who later scored from a free kick 8 minutes after the break. Alessandro Florenzi hammered in the final nail 29 minutes from time after a brilliant individual effort, during which he 'megged' both defender and goalkeeper. He picked the ball up just past the center circle and looked to Mattia Destro who sought to hold up play. However, an Israeli defender's sliding tackle saw the ball bounce back to the on-running Florenzi who used a lovely bit of skill to quadruple the Azzurinni's advantage.
Norway 3-1 England: Disappointment is one of English football's themes. Without it, the papers would have little to write about, because being positive is far too mainstream. It would not be an international tournament involving England unless a head coach was rumored to be shown the door or a player did not become a scapegoat. That is why the U-17's triumph three years ago is never noted.
On Saturday afternoon, knowing they would need something from the match, Stuart Pearce's side collapsed immediately, facing a team they had already defeated twice in qualifying for the tournament. After 15 minutes of play, Fredrik Semb Berge struck for Norway and under 20 minutes later Jo Inge Berget doubled the lead. At the break, the England team had to turn it around, thus Pearce swapped Jason Lowe with Connor Wickham. Jordan Henderson fired a shot goal-wards after the intermission and it looked possible that a comeback was in order. Danny Rose created an opportunity for the substitute, Wickham, moments later, but nothing came of it.
It was never meant to be. Marcus Pedersen got behind his opponents' rearguard and slid the ball to Magnus Eikrem, who made no mistake on 52 minutes.
Craig Dawson struck from the spot 5 minutes after Eikrem's effort, but the score would stand at 3-1, sinking the English ship. After the match, Pearce acknowledged his team's subpar effort, but said that the loss came as a result of Norway flying in senior players. The U-21 boss is correct, as the opposition flew in 4 internationals from the country's World Cup Qualifying clash a day previous. Pearce has plenty of young talent at his disposal, including Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and why he did not use it could only be due to his high moral standards.
Netherlands 5-1 Russia: This was an absolute beat-down if ever there was one. The Dutch rival the Italians for being class of the tournament thus far. Once again, their man of the match was Georginio Wijnaldum. His play was superb on Sunday evening and he showed his ability to play down the center and on the right. The former position prominent in his stunning opener - a blast from miles out that had enough topspin to dip by the keeper, while the latter role was integral to the team's second goal, as the attacker rushed down his flank before finding an over-lapping Marco van Ginkel to cross to the head of Luuk de Jong.
In between those finishes, the Russians shot themselves in foot. Nikita Chicherin was sent-off 5 minutes after half-time. While the Netherlands doubled their lead moments thereafter, Russia halved the lead 4 minutes later, when substitute Denis Cheryshev put back an Alan Dzagoev header which cannoned off the post 65 minutes in. Normal order was restored by the Netherlands on 69 minutes. A flick from de Jong found Ola John, who put a lovely chip over the body of Russia's keeper.
After the flurry of goals, the game slowed down, only to find life of sorts again 7 minutes from time. Leroy Fer, who started against Russia after being benched in the team's match with Germany, looked for Wijnaldum in the area. A deflection allowed the ball to find Danny Hoesen. The sub beat the keeper making it 4-1. His provider would get his share of the spoils in stoppage time to put his country ahead by four.
Spain 1-0 Germany: It was as if the Spanish put a CD on repeat. La Roja dominated their opponents again, limiting the Germans to a few opportunities due to their highly possessive playing style. They had the occasional 'if only' chance, but failed to convert. In addition, Alvaro Morata started on the bench.
Again the No. 12 was put in the firing line by Julen Lopetegui, the Spanish manager, and again he saved the day late in the match. The tournament's 'Super Sub' scored after 13 minutes on the pitch. Replacing Rodrigo, who led all scorers in qualifying, Morata's finish was a gorgeous solo-effort.
After 8 passes, the Real Madrid starlet received the ball, turned Antonio Rudiger, who then caught up to Morata against the bi-line. The German back was left chasing the striker again, as he cut in through the left of penalty area before smashing his shot past Bernd Leno at the keeper's near post.
It was not the fault of the defender who was twice beaten by the speedster, as the goal can be blamed directly on head coach Rainer Adrion. The manager broke one of coaching's cardinal rules on 82 minutes - never bring on a center defender as the game ends unless you must, because it is impossible for a footballer at that point to catchup with the pace of the match. Adrion committed this grave sin when he took off Sebastian Rudy to summon Rudiger. The replacement was torched by Morata, costing the Germans the game and their shot at advancing to the tournament's next stage.
If anyone should be fired after this tournament, it is surely Adrion and not Pearce, as the German manager's unforgivable display of tactical incompetence allowed the nation to be burnt with ease.
Spain, Holland, and Italy have solidified their spots in the next round with two matches gone for all involved. Meanwhile, the English have gone out, whilst Norway and Israel fight for the final spot available in the semi-finals from Group A. In Group B, play on Wednesday will be a mere formality with Germany and Russia out of contention.