England Under-21s 0 Italy Under-21s 1 match report: Stuart Pearce refuses to grumble as 'stagnant' England falter in opening game

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

England will need to win their next two games to progress

Bloomfield Stadium

The fortress that England's Under-21 side have erected all over Europe in the past 19 months was finally breached tonight, and at potentially damaging cost. When the clever little Italian midfielder Lorenzo Insigne whipped a free-kick past Jack Butland 11 minutes from the end, it was the first goal Stuart Pearce's youngsters had conceded in ten games, a run lasting 889 minutes.

Defeat in an opening group match is always a bad, if never fatal blow, although this one left England bottom of Group A after Israel had drawn 2-2 with the ten men of Norway. It was all typically tight and characteristically eventful of Pearce's four successive appearances at this tournament, where they had drawn seven of previous 12 games. Another one would have been welcome, if undeserved, despite England having two goals in two minutes disallowed just after half-time; the second so mysteriously that the whole team celebrated at length and the scoreboard changed to one-nil.

Pearce himself, watched by Sir Trevor Brooking, who must decide shortly whether to offer him a new contract, admitted: “The performance was very poor and the players know that. The better team won the game, some of our players didn't show their quality on the ball and one or two of the bigger players at this level didn't perform.”

The manager described Italy as “decent” and may come to upgrade that assessment before the end of a tournament in which they had been made only third favourites behind Spain and Germany. The Azzurri had much the better of the possession and chances, as well as an outstanding midfield pairing on the left in Marco Verratti of Paris Saint-Germain and the diminutive Insigne. With his bleached hair and long shorts, the latter was a conspicuous figure whom England still found it difficult to keep track of. Southampton's Nathaniel Clyne at right-back was given a difficult evening.

Birmingham's Nathan Redmond on his debut, showed up well but the worry was always that England would lack attacking verve without players like Raheem Sterling and Wilfried Zaha. Despite Pearce's insistence for two days that he was “ready”, Manchester United's new signing stayed on the bench throughout and cannot even be certain of starting the second game against Norway on Saturday. Danny Rose and Tom Ince, both suspended, will be available then.  

The lack of flair and creativity, inability to keep the ball and the high number of absent friends are recurring themes from Pearce's campaigns and, to be fair to him, have been valid criticisms just as often of the senior team. The under-age sides do, however, suffer even more from withdrawals and unavailability. England make it worse for themselves by permanently promoting players like Phil Jones and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who would still be invaluable at this level but were picked for end-of-season friendlies. In contrast, Italy's manager Devis Mangla made a point of thanking the senior coach Cesare Prandelli for allowing him to use the gifted Verratti, who made his debut for the senior team against England last August. Tonight he made 120 passes; England's highest number was Jordan Henderson's 44.

Italy, five times Under-21 champions (a record), are old adversaries of England's at this level in what have invariably been close games; among them a 3-3 draw in the first game at the new Wembley and an equally eventual 2-2 stalemate at the European Championship finals a few months later. More recently there was a 1-0 Italian victory two years ago but the personnel change so quickly at this level that not one player who started on that occasion did so again here.

Nottingham Forest's Henri Lansbury almost certainly would have done but he had strained a groin the previous day. That meant a place for Blackburn's versatile Jason Lowe in midfield alongside  Henderson, with the debutant Redmond, Shelvey and Marvin Sordell further forward, just behind Connor Wickham.

The Sunderland striker struggled to make an impression and the fact that England had two half-chances before half-time compared to Italy's half-dozen clearer ones was a fair summation of the first half. Pearce's team appeared to have settled the better and had the first attempt when Sordell did well to cross for Wickham, who could find no power for his shot.

Once Verratti and Insigne began seeing the ball, however, England's remarkable defensive record came under sustained threat. In the space of three minutes Ciro Immobile outpaced Craig Dawson and shot past the far post; Jack Robinson was forced into a defiant block from Alessandro Florenzi's shot; and Clyne headed his backpass beyond an alarmed Butland but recovered to clear for a corner.

By the interval the lively Insigne had driven a good chance wide and chipped just over the bar after playing a neat one-two. The most dangerous moment came when Robinson, playing in place of Rose, lunged at Florenzi and could easily have conceded a penalty.

The second half followed a similar pattern in that England began with a rush and were then slowed. Wickham was clearly offside before tucking away Clyne's pass but the reason for ruling out Dawson's header after Steven Caulker knocked on Shelvey's corner was more obscure. A push - barely a nudge - was the only possibility.

Italy again forced their way back with Fabio Borini, who had an undistinguished season at Anfield, more prominent. His header at the far post led to Butland's first real save but he screwed his shot wide when the goalkeeper unusually missed a cross and then cleared straight to him after regaining possession.

On a humid night - temperatures had reached 30 degrees during the day - England introduced the Chelsea pair Nat Chalobah and Josh McEachran, neither of whom had made a mark before the game's decisive moment. Clyne brought down the substitute Manolo Gabbiadini just outside the penalty area and Insigne curled the free-kick superbly past Butland's dive.  

With the last kick of the game, the captain Henderson, had a free-kick pushed away by Francesco Bardi and victory was Italy's.

Man of the match Insigne.

Match rating 7/10.

Referee A Gautier (Fr).

Attendance 10,675.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

Bleacher Report

Daily Quiz
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen
Satya Nadella: As Windows 10 is launched can he return Microsoft to its former glory?

Satya Nadella: The man to clean up for Windows?

While Microsoft's founders spend their billions, the once-invincible tech company's new boss is trying to save it
A Very British Coup, part two: New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel

A Very British Coup, part two

New novel in pipeline as Jeremy Corbyn's rise inspires sequel
Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Philae lander data show comets could have brought 'building blocks of life' to Earth

Icy dust layer holds organic compounds similar to those found in living organisms
What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist? Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories

What turns someone into a conspiracy theorist?

Study to look at why some are more 'receptive' to such theories
Chinese web dissenters using coded language to dodge censorship filters and vent frustration at government

Are you a 50-center?

Decoding the Chinese web dissenters
The Beatles film Help, released 50 years ago, signalled the birth of the 'metrosexual' man

Help signalled birth of 'metrosexual' man

The Beatles' moptop haircuts and dandified fashion introduced a new style for the modern Englishman, says Martin King
Hollywood's new diet: Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?

Hollywood's new diet trends

Has LA stolen New York's crown as the ultimate foodie trend-setter?
6 best recipe files

6 best recipe files

Get organised like a Bake Off champion and put all your show-stopping recipes in one place
Ashes 2015: Steven Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Finn goes from being unselectable to simply unplayable

Middlesex bowler claims Ashes hat-trick of Clarke, Voges and Marsh
Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... for the fourth time

Mullah Omar, creator of the Taliban, is dead... again

I was once told that intelligence services declare their enemies dead to provoke them into popping up their heads and revealing their location, says Robert Fisk
Margaret Attwood on climate change: 'Time is running out for our fragile, Goldilocks planet'

Margaret Atwood on climate change

The author looks back on what she wrote about oil in 2009, and reflects on how the conversation has changed in a mere six years