European U21 Championships: Stuart Pearce confident England kids can conquer Europe, starting with Italy
England coach, who wants to stay in job, seeks solid start against Italians
On the eve of the European Under-21 Championship finals, the England manager Stuart Pearce has declared for the first time that he wants to continue in the job after his contract expires at the end of the month. Whether he is allowed to may depend on results over the next fortnight, starting against Italy in Tel Aviv tomorrow night.
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Pearce took the job in 2007, initially working part-time while still managing Manchester City and then on a full-time basis. In six years he has led the team at three previous Under-21 tournaments, reaching one final and one semi-final, as well as working with the Under-20s and also the senior squad under Fabio Capello – a role subsequently dropped when Roy Hodgson took over and brought in his own coaches.
Pearce said: "I'm absolutely delighted with the job I do, I really enjoy working with young players and have a real passion for it." He expects to sit down with Sir Trevor Brooking, the Football Association's director of football development, who will be in Israel for the first two games, once England's involvement in the tournament is over. The discussion is likely to revolve around whether it is now time for a change or whether further continuity would be beneficial.
The former England left-back, a semi-finalist as a player at the 1990 World Cup and Euro '96, has benefited from his previous campaigns on both sides of the white line, and claimed: "Every time you set foot in a big tournament you are armed with a bit more experience and decisions become easier to make."
He must take an important one in conjunction with his coaches about the fitness of Wilfried Zaha, who has the potential to be one of the stars of the show here but has not had a full training session since playing in the Championship play-off final nine days ago, his last match for Crystal Palace before joining Manchester United. Zaha has been suffering from ankle problems for some time and the safest option may be to keep him initially on the substitutes' bench and hope that Connor Wickham will demonstrate the scoring potential he has shown more frequently for this team than for Sunderland.
"He's coming along nicely," was Pearce's assessment of Zaha before being drawn, a little reluctantly it seemed, into "I think he's ready to go." Two who are raring to go but not allowed to are Tottenham's Danny Rose and Blackpool's Tom Ince, both suspended for the opening game after the post-match fracas in Serbia last October. That leaves holes at left-back and in midfield, which cannot be filled either by the usual crop of absentees; Southampton's full-back Luke Shaw and Wigan's Callum McManaman could have expected a first cap at some stage had they not been injured, like Liverpool's Raheem Sterling.
Given that the first game is against Italy, whom Pearce is trying to burden with being group favourites, Jonjo Shelvey and Henri Lansbury may be given roles behind Wickham with a solid trio behind them in the Chelsea pair Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah plus the captain Jordan Henderson. Henderson and Shelvey have been winding up their Anfield team-mate Fabio Borini, although the captain conceded: "I've trained with Fabio and know he is great at finishing. We have to get tight on him. There is a lot of very good quality in their team."
Henderson is the only player in the squad with more than a single senior cap, and it seemed particularly odd that Manchester City's Jack Rodwell should have been omitted, then called up for the seniors last week. Pearce always has to fight for the strongest squad he can get, but he insisted: "I bark along that politics line before a tournament, but once I get 23 players behind me on a plane, those 23 are the ones I want to go to battle with, because they want to be here.
"They have got a good spirit about themselves. We go in with a good record, on the back of nine games not conceding a goal, so confidence is strong. I think Italy are the [group] favourites. We have played the Norwegians twice, they are an extremely good side. The Israelis have home advantage. It is a very open group.
"I have been to many age-group tournaments and you might have ideas in your mind there are bigger nations, but that goes out of the window. It might hinge on the result of the first game."
The crucial thing in that case will be not to lose it. The squad are confident that despite daytime temperatures of up to 30 degrees, Tel Aviv will be much cooler by kick-off, which is at 9.30pm local time, after Israel have played Norway in the opening match, which is almost sold out. Pearce has "a burning ambition inside me" to win the tournament. Doing so would be quite a feat – Spain, who play in Group B, are the holders and favourites – and give Sir Trevor and others much to ponder.
European Under-21 Championship fixtures
Wed Israel v Norway (Netanya)
Wed England v Italy (Tel Aviv)
Sat England v Norway (Petah T)
Sat Italy v Israel (Tel Aviv)
Tues Israel v England (Jerusalem)
Tues Norway v Italy (Tel Aviv)
Thurs Spain v Russia (Jerusalem)
Thurs Netherlands v Germany (Petah Tikva)
Sun Netherlands v Russia (Jerusalem)
Sun Germany v Spain (Netanya)
12 Jun Spain v Netherlands (Petah T)
12 Jun Russia v Germany (Netanya)
15 Jun Winner Group A v Runner-up Group B (Netanya)
15 Jun Winner Group B v Runner-up Group A (Petah Tikva)
Final 18 Jun Jerusalem
Odds 2-1 Spain, 7-2 Germany, 5-1 Italy, 11-2 England, 13-2 Netherlands, 20-1 Israel, Russia, 33-1 Norway
Probable teams for England's match with Italy
England (4-3-2-1): Butland; Smith, Dawson, Caulker, Clyne; Henderson, Chalobah, McEachran; Lansbury, Shelvey; Wickham
Italy (4-4-2): Bardi; Donati, Bianchetti, Caldirola, Briaghi; Florenzi, Verratti, Marrone, Insigne; Destro, Borini. Referee A Gautier (Fr) TV Sky Sports 2, 7.15-10pm
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