Christie's goal seals England play-off place

England Under-21 2 Greece Under-21 1
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The Independent Football

A third successive victory under David Platt saw England top their group and move into the play-offs for the European Under-21 championships, a feat that four months ago appeared entirely beyond them.

A confident performance under pressure and against a side that had outplayed them in June set the seal on the first phase of Platt's stewardship of the Under-21 side. "Our attention is now focused on the European Championships in May and next month's play-offs but we have more than enough ability and belief," he said.

Those twin qualities were most obviously on display in the first half and the final 15 minutes. In between, Greece mounted a sustained offensive, blunted by the excellence of Chris Kirkland, who may be the nation's most expensive goalkeeper but who until last night had only a diet of Liverpool reserve games to feed off.

England began full of confidence and precise passing to seize the lead after 10 minutes as Jermain Defoe, who has now scored five in six under-21 internationals, met Jonathan Greening's cross with a header that squeezed in by the far post.

Jermaine Pennant was one of just a handful of survivors from the side that lost 3-1 in Athens, and the jewel in Arsène Wenger's youth policy fully justified Platt's decision to prefer him ahead of Manchester United's Luke Chadwick. In the 12th minute, Pennant's free-kick was met by a back-flick from Greening, only to be superbly parried by Stefanos Kotsolis in the Greek goal.

Although few would have doubted Platt's statement that England had a distinct edge in the first half, this was virtually the last clear-cut chance they created until the closing quarter of an hour when Darius Vassell met Pennant's cross from less than six yards out and somehow contrived to miss. If this exposed nerves on the England bench, they were soothed five minutes from time when a neat interplay between Malcolm Christie and David Prutton saw the Derby striker racing clear and slotting past Kotsolis.

Platt thought this would "knock the stuffing" out of the Greeks but throughout these qualifiers their Under-21s have displayed a tenacity the senior side has entirely lacked and when Ledley King knocked over the onrushing Dimitrios Papadopoulos in the area everything was briefly back in the balance. Papadopoulos, who converted the penalty himself, was booed by a full house not just because they thought, wrongly, he had dived but because he plays for Burnley.

After the interval, England were in Kirkland's debt. He made three fine saves, the best of which came when spreading himself to deny Papadopoulos, who, having been made a present of the ball by David Dunn, outpaced Gareth Barry. However, Greece's best chance came when Georgios Kyriazis burst through, leaving him helpless. Greek journalists shouted for a goal as the ball struck the side-netting but Ewood stayed silent.

ENGLAND UNDER-21: (4-4-2) Kirkland (Liverpool); Young (Charlton), King (Tottenham), Barry (Aston Villa), Bridge (Southampton); Pennant (Arsenal), Carrick (West Ham), Dunn (Blackburn), Greening (Middlesbrough); Defoe (West Ham), Vassell (Aston Villa). Substitutes: Christie (Derby) for Defoe, 73; Prutton (Nottingham Forest) for Greening, 73.

GREECE UNDER-21: (3-5-2) Kotsolis (Panathinaikos); Loumpoutis (Aris Salonika), Kyrgiakos (Panathinaikos), Tavalaridis (Arsenal); Nastos (PAOK Salonika), Kyriazis (Iraklis Salonika), Katsouranis (Panachaiki), Petrou (Xanthi), Papadopoulos (Burnley); Vakouftsis (Fiorentina), Theodoridis (Aris Salonika). Substitutes: Berneanou (Ethnikos) for Petrou, 38; Gittas (Yiannina) for Tavalaridis, 79; Iordanis (OFI) for Katsouranis, 83.

Referee: E Iturralde Gonzales (Spain).

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