A disallowed goal from Nathan Delfouneso left England on the brink of elimination from the European Under-19 Championship. The Aston Villa striker, the jewel in England's youth crown, who had scored four times in their run to last year's final, saw what would have been a critical equaliser ruled out for what must have been the slightest of handballs.
Had Noel Blake's side secured a point, they would have required only a draw against the hosts and favourites, France, on Saturday to secure their passage to the semi-finals. As it is, England will probably have to beat a team that has scored nine times in their opening two group games and trust that Austria, beaten 5-0 by France yesterday, can hold the Netherlands.
Nevertheless, however unfair the decision, much of England's play in the first half confirmed Blake's assessment that the opening 3-2 win against Austria had been a better result than performance. The England manager, curiously, chose not to include Arsenal's Thomas Cruise, who scored the decisive goal against Austria, in the second match in Bayeux against a Dutch team that had been taken apart 4-1 by France in their first game.
Despite that humbling, the Netherlands looked a better, more composed side, who took the lead early and never looked like losing it until Delfouneso's interventions – the Villa forward also saw a first-half shot cleared off the line. England seldom came to terms with Jerson Cabral's crossing and but for some excellent keeping from Declan Rudd, a product of the Norwich youth academy, the game might have been lost before the interval – a save from Luc Castaignos was the pick of a very good bunch.
Blake's side were frankly caught cold by a Dutch team who had started slowly against France and paid the price, although Blake thought the result in Caen flattered the French.
The Netherlands were ahead within six minutes as Steven Berghuis was allowed to head home Cabral's deep cross which the midfielder, on the books of Steve McClaren's former club, the Dutch champions Twente Enschede, directed expertly into the top corner of Rudd's net. But for an offside flag raised against Castaignos, the Netherlands would have been two up just before the interval. England, who did not manage a serious attempt on goal until 26 minutes had elapsed, appeared far better after the interval, although after the referee Gediminas Mazeika had ruled out Delfouneso's goal, they seemed to fade. There were plenty of maybes. Had Tottenham's Steven Caulker, who spent last season in the rougher and readier environment of Yeovil Town, directed his header from Jacob Mellis's corner slightly lower, their task might have been easier. Fifteen minutes from time Caulker had an equally good chance as Ryan Noble pulled a ball back that he was just unable to connect with.
As it was, the critical moment came when Delfouneso brought down Dean Parrett's cross from the right, turned his marker, and stabbed his shot past Jeroen Zoet, who had appeared vulnerable all afternoon. The handball decision looked mystifying.
The Netherlands, however, started and finished the stronger side. Ricky van Haaren forced another fine save from Rudd and substitute Rajiv van la Parra twice came close to putting this match beyond doubt. If there was any difference it was that the Dutch had more first-team experience and sometimes it showed.
Spain qualified for the semi-finals with a 2-1 win over Portugal, who can join them if they beat Croatia in their final match.
England Rudd; Clyne, James, Caulker, Baker, Mellis, Parrett, Brown, Phillips, Delfouneso, Nouble.
Results Sunday: Austria 2-3 England; France 4-1 Netherlands. Yesterday: France 5-0 Austria; Netherlands 1-0 England.
Remaining fixtures Saturday: England v France; Netherlands v Austria.