The heat is on here, in every sense. Today’s temperatures are forecast to climb to 36 Celsius, and will hardly have cooled off by kick-off at 7pm local time (5pm BST) for the England side’s second European Under-21 Championship group match, against Norway.
It is a game that could prove crucial to the career of their manager Stuart Pearce, who has been in charge for six years and four of these tournaments, steering them through qualifying each time as one of the best eight teams, then finding in true English tradition that the next part is just too demanding.
With one final and one semi-final, the Under-21s have outperformed their seniors in that period, yet the record at the four tournaments is strictly middle-of-the-table: three wins, seven draws and three defeats. The goals aggregate of 15-16 indicates how tight and low-scoring the ties invariably are and also illustrates England’s strengths and weaknesses: on the one hand a generally disciplined defence with a good goalkeeper, on the other a lack of creativity and natural goalscorers. Only once in those 13 matches have they managed more than two goals.
Pearce went into the competition, as he always has, with no guarantee of an extended contract. Despite announcing on Tuesday how keen he was to continue, he must be aware his prospects look weaker than before. Hence the importance of recovering from Wednesday’s 1-0 defeat by Italy to beat the Norwegians and going on to qualify for the semi-final as one of the top two following the final group match, against the hosts Israel next Tuesday.
What was confirmed on Thursday night, when Pearce and his staff watched the Netherlands beat Germany 3-2 in “probably the highest quality under-21 match I’ve ever seen”, was that England are in the weaker of the two groups; the other one also includes the favourites and holders Spain, who only beat Russia 1-0. Wisely he did not attempt any comparison with his own team’s performance, for it was the poverty of it against an Italian side far superior technically and tactically that was of greatest concern.
The question for the end of the tournament is how far that is the fault of the manager, who sees his players (those who actually turn up) for as little time as a Fabio Capello or Roy Hodgson and at one point last year did not have a match for over six months.
In fronting up to the media over the past two days, Pearce has cleverly mixed positive vibes with criticism of that previous performance and casually dropped in the figure of 17 potential players who were unavailable for it. A little sympathy and a lot of scepticism resulted.
At the stadium in Petah Tikva, eight miles east of Tel Aviv, he was rightly in positive mode yesterday. “I think if our performance is good we’ll win the game,” he said. “We’ve had some good movement and interaction in the team that didn’t show itself against Italy. I certainly think it will. We just needed to show a bit more devilment and, when we had the ball, a bit more composure. We’ve got some good players in our team and too many of them didn’t show that character.”
Some will pay with their place in the side, as the previously suspended Danny Rose and Tom Ince can return, while Wilfried Zaha, “outstanding in training for the past two days”, is finally ready to take a bow. He may replace the more pedestrian Connor Wickham as the main striker, and with Ince, Nathan Redmond (impressive on debut against Italy) and Jonjo Shelvey behind him, England would look more like a team with some pace and flair.
Norway, narrowly beaten twice by England in qualifying but the better side in a 2-2 draw against Israel, even with 10 men, play more football than the stereotype of their country as hard-running long-ball athletes suggests. Unlike England, they have also been canny enough to make players from their senior squad available. “Norway know if they get beat, they have another chance,” Pearce said. “We know if we get beat we don’t.” The same may apply to the man himself.