England, whose last European Under-21 Championship adventure two years ago was bursting with incident, gave this year's finals in Sweden an eventful start as they struggled to see off a hard-working Finnish side.
The Finns had proved to possess teeth and puppy-like enthusiasm even before Stuart Pearce's side, having taken the lead through Lee Cattermole, had Michael Mancienne sent off for conceding the penalty from which the equaliser arrived. Pearce, having promised there would be no special treatment here for Theo Walcott, proved true to his word, substituting the Arsenal winger at the interval after an ineffective first half. Micah Richards' fine header then earned an invaluable, if laboured, opening win.
At the final whistle it was Finland, playing in their first tournament finals, who performed a lap of honour – their fans having turned Freddie Ljungberg's old stamping ground into a home game – as England's 10 men walked wearily off on a warm evening to contemplate the demanding battles to come. "They have got to do a lot better than that to have an impact on this tournament," Pearce said. "But when you wake up in the morning, the only thing that matters is those three points."
England had taken the safe option in midfield, using Bolton's Fabrice Muamba as a holding man. Adam Johnson of Middlesbrough was the unlucky player sacrificed, but extra midfield support turned out to be the sensible option as the Finns hassled, chased and knocked long passes forward.
West Ham's Mark Noble, the new captain as Steven Taylor was one of seven injured players unable to make the squad, was named man of the match for an industrious performance that suited the nature of a game whose shape changed after the sending-off. There were early warnings when Kieran Gibbs clipped Berat Sadik's heels, before Mancienne and the goalkeeper Joe Hart were indecisive in dealing with another of Finland's long balls down the centre. They escaped that time, but not in the 31st minute, when the Chelsea defender found himself pressurised by Sadik, panicked and brought him down.
Pearce agreed it was a penalty, which was tucked away neatly by Tim Sparv, an old housemate of Walcott and Martin Cranie at Southampton. Sparv then led a charge of all 10 Finnish outfield players over the barrier to celebrate, the referee declining to book all or any of them. Cranie had to move from right-back to centre-half, where he performed well, with James Milner, who was winning his 43rd cap at this level, dropping to full-back.
The original plan had been to use Milner and Walcott out wide with Gabriel Agbonlahor between them, allowing the Villa striker to use his pace and power down the centre. That worked well for the opening goal as England finally threatened after quarter of an hour spent mainly on the back foot. Milner produced the pass for his club-mate, who nudged Jonas Portin aside and laid the ball back for Cattermole. The Wigan midfielder scuffed his shot, which bounced rather apologetically in off Jukka Raitala and then the goalkeeper.
Pearce sent Fraizer Campbell on for Walcott and was rewarded with a goal six minutes into the second half. Milner's curling free-kick was pushed for a corner, from which Richards lost his marker and headed powerfully in.
England Under-21s (4-3-3): Hart (Manchester City); Cranie (Portsmouth), Richards (Manchester City), Mancienne (Chelsea), Gibbs (Arsenal); Cattermole (Wigan Athletic), Muamba (Bolton), Noble (West Ham United); Walcott (Arsenal), Agbonlahor (Aston Villa), Milner (Aston Villa). Substitutes: Campbell (Man Utd) for Walcott, h-t; Rodwell for Agbonlahor 86; Tomkins (West Ham) for Richards 89.
Finland Under-21s (4-2-3-1): Jaakkola (Siena); Aho (International Turku), Portin (Jaro), Turunen (Honka Espoo), Raitala (HJK Helsinki); Sparv (Halmstad), M Hetemaj (Thrasivoulos Fylis); Hamalainen (TPS Turku), Parikka (HJK Helsinki), P Hetemaj (AEK Athens); Sadik (Arminia Bielefeld). Substitutes: Pukki (Seville) for Parrika, 65; Vasara (Honka Espoo) for Hamalainen, 80.
Referee: C Cakir (Turkey).
*In the other match in Group B last night, Spain and Germany drew 0-0 in Gothenburg.
Remember the name: Marcus Berg, Groningen and Sweden
From the small town in Sweden that gave us Sven Goran Eriksson came a more talented footballer who may yet become Torsby's most famous son. Berg, due to play against Belarus tonight, won the Swedish League with IFK Gothenburg as a 21-year-old, earning a £2.5m move to the Netherlands. Two-footed and a fine finisher, he already has seven caps for the senior Sweden team.Reuse content