England will be all white on the night
Stuart Pearce's side battle suspensions and the weight of history against Germany
Monday 29 June 2009
Given the choice of colours to wear in this evening's European Under-21 Championship final against England, Germany's players opted for the opposite of the group match between the teams a week ago – not to mention a famous day in July 1966 – and went for red. Changing the pattern of the previous match, in which they managed only a 1-1 draw against Stuart Pearce's reserve team, may prove trickier as England seek with justifiable confidence to win the competition for the first time in quarter of a century.
The German coach, Horst Hrubesch, tried to insist that the only point that mattered on that night in Halmstad was the one his side gained from the draw, enabling them to qualify for a winning semi-final against Italy. "Everyone said it was an England B team, but you could see they had top-level players and that we are on a similar level," he said. "That is why we reached the final. It will not have any influence on this game."
What he did admit was that "England had some advantages on set pieces," and although a downbeat Pearce was not inclined to make anything of the clear pyschological advantage either, he will have noted how threatening his team were from the 10 corners they earned to Germany's one. Other than some clever little midfielders, the strength of the German side would appear to be in defence, with an outstanding goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer of Schalke, having conceded only one goal. That was Jack Rodwell's header from Craig Gardner's corner.
"Internationally, German youth football has come on in leaps and bounds lately," Hrubesch said. "I have a very good side with special skills and good individuals. It may be one of the strongest sides we have had at this level." Hard as it may be for the country's far-right to accept, that is due in part to a multi-cultural approach that has brought into this squad players with parents born everywhere from Ghana and Nigeria to Iran and Siberia. Runners-up to England in 1982 is the best they have managed at Under-21 level but significantly Hrubesch coached their Under-19s to the European Championship last year.
The only English players from that previous encounter likely to be on the pitch at 7.45pm this evening will be Adam Johnson and one of the two reserve goalkeepers, selected because of avoidable suspensions to Gabriel Agbonlahor, Frazier Campbell and Joe Hart. The Football Association contingent's appeal against Hart's yellow card in the semi-final penalty shoot-out for gamesmanship was turned down which means a big night for either Scott Loach or Joe Lewis.
Pearce, a more confident figure than in his early days in management at Manchester City – he was yesterday endorsed by his successor there, Sven Göran Eriksson – believes he is learning all the time, especially from the decisiveness and ruthlessness of Fabio Capello. England's planning here has in the main been excellent, though he admits he still makes mistakes. Coming to the tournament one striker short looks to be one of them. Today is therefore a hugely important one for Theo Walcott, who has ambitions to match Arsène Wenger's that he will one-day be a front-line Premier League striker rather than an erratic wide-man.
Throughout his career as player and coach, Pearce has also been a follower of the school that says first is everything and second is nowhere. He continued the theme last night, insisting: "As a group, we feel we have had no success yet. The only way we will be deemed to have any success is if we win. Whoever goes away without the trophy will not think they have achieved anything. I won't and that's the message my players have had for two years. For me, success is not coming away as a gallant loser."
From 1990 to 1996, via a losing FA Cup final, Pearce has experienced that sensation too often.
It would be nice to think that a tortuous sequence of penalty shoot-outs will not continue this evening either. Hrubesch does not think it will, claiming: "You don't have to worry about penalties. It will be decided inside 90 minutes. For Germany for sure."
But from losing seven players before the tournament began and now another three, England have shown grit and determination allied to some sporadically effective football. If a rookie goalkeeper avoids big match nerves; Micah Richards and Nedum Onuoha subdue the gifted Mesut Ozil; and Walcott uses his pace to get in behind the German back-four, then England can be all white on the night.
England (probable, 4-1-4-1): Lewis; Cranie, Richards, Onuoha, Gibbs; Muamba; Milner, Cattermole, Noble, Johnson; Walcott.
Germany (probable, 4-4-2): Neuer; Beck, Hoewedes, Boateng, Boenisch; Castro, Khedira, Aogo, Marin; Wagner, Ozil.
Referee: B Kuipers (Netherlands).
Kick-off: 7.45pm (Sky Sports)
Three to fear: The Germans who can deny England tonight
England should need little warning about the speedy Bayer Leverkusen full-back. Playing further forward for the Under-21s, he burst through the English defence in last Monday's 1-1 draw to score in the first four minutes. Adam Johnson and Kieran Gibbs must keep him on a short, tight leash.
The clever little playmaker, compared to Thomas Hassler from Germany's 1990 World Cup winning team, has just earned a transfer upmarket from Borussia Monchengladbach to Uefa Cup finalists Werder Bremen for £7m. Will stretch the play wide on the left while Castro does the same on the right.
Essentially a midfielder, Ozil, of Werder Bremen, has been pushed into attack during this tournament to make up for Germany's lack of strikers. A strong shot makes him dangerous there, although, technically gifted, he can cause England problems by dropping deeper into midfield.
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