England Under-21s avoid nightmare draw for European Championships

 

England today escaped a nightmare draw for next summer's UEFA Under-21 Championship finals after they were paired with Israel, Norway and Italy.

The Young Lions almost landed the kindest possible opposition in Group A as they swerved defending champions Spain, Germany and Russia.

Holland completed Group B, with England automatically avoiding them as both sides were second seeds.

Spain helped knock Stuart Pearce's men out of the last tournament in 2011, where they failed to progress from the group stage.

Germany, meanwhile, thrashed England in the 2009 final, while Holland beat them in an epic semi-final penalty shootout two years earlier.

England's draw saw them renew their rivalry with Norway, whom they beat to top spot in qualifying Group Eight.

Israel qualified automatically as hosts, while Italy finished top of Group Seven before beating Sweden in the play-offs.

England are expected to open their finals campaign against the hosts, before meeting Italy and then Norway.

Pearce said: "I thought the draw would only serve to underline what we already knew - that we will have to be at it from the off to beat the very best young teams in Europe if we are to succeed in this tournament.

"We are in with the hosts and they'll be backed by some great home support.

"Norway we know all about and there was very little between us in qualifying.

"Italy are technically very difficult to break down and we have experience of them in the past.

"On paper, it might look easy, but it never works that way. We are excited by it.

"We shouldn't forget that, as much as we're looking around at other teams and talking about their qualities, they'll be looking at us and probably talking in the same terms about our qualities.

"After all, we are a team that has just gone through a calendar year unbeaten and without conceding a goal - few can boast a record as solid as that. That is credit to the players.

"This will be our fourth tournament, and we'll bring great experience with us in the summer, especially within my staff.

"That doesn't guarantee success, of course, and we'll need a strong squad, who are fit and in form. We are coming to Israel to win it.

"During my time, we have lost a semi-final on penalties, lost a final and gone out in the group stages, so we have experienced most everything in this competition, except winning it.

"That was our target at the start of the qualification campaign and we are aware of what's in front of us, but we want to win it.

"For a lot of the young players lucky enough to experience these finals, it will prove to be an invaluable time in Israel, not least with a World Cup on the horizon in Brazil.

"We have had a good period here in Israel and have a good idea of hotels and training bases now. This will be confirmed as soon as UEFA decide on the match schedule."

Matches will take place in Tel Aviv, Petah Tivka, Netanya and Jerusalem, with the finals will witness England's first competitive game since their own acrimonious play-off win over Serbia.

Both sides still face punishment from UEFA over the ugly scenes that marred the second leg, during which some of England's black players allegedly suffered racist abuse.

PA

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