As a member of Southampton's academy for three years, the Finnish midfielder Tim Sparv used to try to keep up with Theo Walcott, and on his own admission never succeeded. This evening Finland's Under-21 team and their captain, Sparv, must try to match Walcott and a crop of England's finest young Premier League players as the European Under-21 Championship gets under way in Halmstad.
It will be a daunting task, even if Stuart Pearce, the England manager, insists in characteristically robust fashion that, "all bullshit aside, this is the strongest Under-21 tournament there has ever been. I don't see any underdogs here. Every one of the eight teams can win it."
Finland would be astonished to do so in the first tournament they have qualified for at this level, where their record against England is one win in six meetings, starting with an 8-1 defeat at Hull in 1977. They have never reached the finals of a World Cup or European Championship either. That is all in the past, of course. More recently they knocked Scotland out of this competition and in the qualifying play-off scored twice in the last 10 minutes when facing elimination by Austria. "You can expect a lot of heart from us," Sparv promised.
With Spain and Germany expected to provide stronger opposition later in Group B – they meet tonight in Gothenburg – England need to start with a victory. In Pearce's four international tournaments as player and coach they have never done so, slowly building momentum instead on three of those occasions (1990, 1996 and 2007) to reach a semi-final, all lost on penalty shoot-outs. The exception was here in Sweden, at the 1992 European Championship, when Graham Taylor's side played two goalless draws and then lost 2-1 to the host country after Gary Lineker was famously substituted. "It was the feeling of desolation coming back to the team hotel, having gone to the game expecting to go through and reach the next stage," Pearce recalled. "The feeling of going home before the party has started is a horrible one."
Two years ago in this competition, the Netherlands staged the biggest party, beating Serbia 4-1 in the final after their epic 13-12 victory on penalties over Pearce's team. "We feel we are more prepared than we were two years ago," he said.
Walcott was injured then, but is still eligible, as is Aston Villa's James Milner, whose 42 caps are a record for the Under-21s. West Ham's Mark Noble and the Manchester City pair Nedum Onuoha and Joe Hart are other survivors from 2007. Onuoha, who played in all four games then, needs a fitness test on a thigh strain this morning before a final decision is made on the team.
Walcott and Gabriel Agbonlahor offer the promise of goals and pace in attack, while Wigan's Lee Cattermole may edge out Fabrice Muamba of Bolton to do the hard graft alongside Noble and Milner in midfield. Pearce can only hope there is enough there to compensate for the absence of experienced performers like Steven Taylor, David Wheater, Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon. Pearce has challenged his players to push for a place in the senior squad: "Players like Ashley Young came away two years ago with an enhanced reputation and we hope a few more players follow that."
England (probable, 4-3-3): Hart (Manchester City); Gardner (Aston Villa) Richards (Manchester City), Mancienne (Chelsea), Gibbs (Arsenal); Milner (Aston Villa), Cattermole (Wigan Athletic), Noble (West Ham United); Walcott (Arsenal), Agbonlahor (Aston Villa), Johnson (Middlesbrough).
Finland (probable, 4-4-2): Jaakkola (Siena); Aho (International Turku), Portin (Jaro), Turunen (Honka Espoo), Raitala (HJK Helsinki); Hamalainen (TPS Turku), Sparv (Halmstad), M Hetemaj (Thrasivoulos Fylis), P Hetemaj (AEK Athens); Sadik (Arminia Bielefeld), Parikka (HJK Helsinki).
Referee: C Cakir (Turkey).Reuse content