Gibbs withdraws from England Under-21 squad

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The Independent Football

Stuart Pearce's dream of fielding the strongest possible England side at the European Under-21 Championships suffered yet another blow today when Kieran Gibbs pulled out of the squad.

Arsenal full-back Gibbs became the fourth of six senior internationals head coach Pearce had picked in his provisional 40-man party to withdraw from this month's finals.

Gibbs, 21, was officially ruled out shortly before the squad departed for Denmark this morning, having aggravated an ankle injury as a second-half substitute in Sunday's final warm-up match against Norway.

His withdrawal followed that of Jack Wilshere, Andy Carroll and Micah Richards, all of whom Pearce had been counting on being available.

Pearce, who elected not to replace Gibbs in what is now a 22-man squad, said: "We have to deal with setbacks every now and again, but we are fortunate to have a squad and a staff with previous tournament experience.

"It's unfortunate for Kieran, but he went for a scan yesterday and is in a medical boot."

Jordan Henderson and Danny Welbeck are now the only two players left in the squad with senior caps, and the latter is not even fully match fit.

Manchester United striker Welbeck, who was forced out of England's squad for the 2009 finals in Sweden, was dogged by knee and hamstring problems during the second half of his season-long loan spell at Sunderland.

The 20-year-old has not completed 90 minutes for club or country in more than two months ahead of England's European Championship opener against Spain on Sunday.

Welbeck, who missed the final month of the season due to his hamstring injury, said: "The disadvantage is I'm not into my match routine, because I haven't played a full game for about six weeks.

"But, on the other hand, you could say I'm a bit fresher if I can get my fitness back up with the other lads'."

There will be no time for Welbeck to ease himself into the finals, with England facing the toughest possible group out in Denmark.

Matches against Czech Republic and Ukraine follow Sunday's mouthwatering curtain-raiser against Spain.

Along with England, the Spanish will be pre-tournament favourites, and they boast more than one senior World Cup-winner in their ranks.

Welbeck said: "Spain are a good team but we're going to go in there and give it our best shot.

"We'll have players in our team they'll fear as well so it should be a good game and I'm looking forward to it."

He added: "I think we've got a really good squad. Everyone's young and hungry and eager to improve, and wanting to be winners."

Welbeck looks certain to start on Sunday, having already made his senior England debut in March's friendly against Ghana.

But the striker said: "There's nobody nailed on to start in the team.

"We've seen from the quality in training that whoever is coming into the team is going to be able to give it their best shot and it's not going to downgrade anything."

Nevertheless, it is extremely unlikely Pearce will break up what could prove a lethal partnership between Welbeck and Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge.

Welbeck said: "You get to know each other and get to develop an understanding with each other and hopefully we can take that with us into the championships."

Welbeck and Sturridge take it in turns to patrol the central and wide areas, while Swansea striker Scott Sinclair could also come into the equation if Pearce opts for a three-pronged attack.

Welbeck said: "When we play up front together, whether we start in the middle or out wide, I think we'll be mixing and matching anyway, so anybody could play in any of the three positions."