England left hanging on by red card
England Under-21 2 Wales Under-21 2 (England win 5-4 on aggregate)
Wednesday 15 October 2008
The England Under-21 team manager Stuart Pearce flew out to Belarus last night having overseen his youngsters' passage to the European Championship finals in Sweden next summer, but only after another eventful game against resilient opposition. Remarkably, the evening's events were even more exciting than last Friday's, when England finished 3-2 ahead. Wales, inspired by Arsenal's 17 year-old Aaron Ramsey, fell further behind before drawing level overall with two quick strikes, then conceded an unlucky own goal. England's Tom Huddlestone, having scored the first goal of the night, was sent off with 25 minutes to play, but his team-mates held out – just – to remain unbeaten under Pearce apart from the defeat on penalties in the semi-final of the 2007 tournament.
"A great advert for under-21 football and British football," the manager said, and a good crowd of 23,812, attracted by sensible pricing – £10 for adults, £5 for children – surely agreed. As in the first leg there were four goals in an opening half full of incident. In the 13th minute Ramsey began his eventful contribution to the proceedings by fouling Middlesbrough's Adam Johnson and Huddlestone drove a low free-kick round the wall and into the side of the net that the goalkeeper Owain Fon Williams was supposed to be guarding.
Wales responded with two goals in five minutes against a defence that had only conceded one in eight qualifying group matches. The first was magnificently struck by Ramsey on the half-volley from 25 yards, giving Joe Hart not a sniff of a chance. The Arsenal teenager then played Reading's Simon Church in behind England's captain Steven Taylor for a smart finish to level the aggregate at 4-4. "He can be as good as anyone in Europe," said the Welsh manager Brian Flynn of Ramsey.
Six minutes more, however, and England were back in front. Taylor met Jamie O'Hara's inswinging free-kick with a header at the far post that was not going in until it struck the unfortunate Sam Vokes's arm for an own goal. Fabrice Muamba was brought on and given the unrewarding task of controlling Ramsey, who began driving Wales forward again after Huddlestone was dismissed for sliding in on Darcy Blake as both players went to ground. A British referee would probably have settled for a yellow card but the Dutchman Kevin Blom produced a straight red. Now Huddlestone will be suspended for the first game of the finals.
Needing one more goal against 10 men to force extra-time, Wales came desperately close to it with six minutes left, Vokes driving against the inside of a post. Pearce has taken with him to Minsk Hart and David Wheater, who have been called up to gain experience of life with the senior squad – Gabriel Agbonlahor should also have been making the trip but he has been forced to pull out after picking up a hamstring injury – as well as a dramatic tale to tell Fabio Capello.
England (4-3-3): Hart (Man City); Wheater (Middlesbrough), Mancienne (Chelsea), S Taylor (Newcastle), O'Hara (Tottenham); Huddlestone (Tottenham), Cattermole (Wigan, Muamba (Bolton) 30), Noble (West Ham); Milner (Aston Villa) Agbonlahor (Aston Villa, Campbell (Tottenham) h-t), Johnson (Middlesbrough). Wales (4-3-1-2): Williams (Stockport); Eardley (Oldham), Blake (Cardiff), Jacobson (Bristol Rovers), Wiggins (Crystal Palace); King (Leicester, Bradley (Walsall) 60), Collison (West Ham), MacDonald (Swansea, Adams (Leicester) 84); Ramsey (Arsenal); Vokes (Wolves), Church (Reading). Referee: K Blom (Netherlands).
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