It is a shocking statistic that in the last quarter-century England have competed in 64 Uefa tournaments at various levels and won precisely one: the Under-18 competition 16 years ago, when they were the host country. As a particularly promising crop of youngsters emerges, hopes have frequently been raised, then dashed on the rocks of misfortune, injuries, suspensions and penalty shoot-outs.
The reality was summed up yesterday in typically blunt fashion by Stuart Pearce as his England Under-21s prepared for their semi-final against Sweden in Gothenburg this evening: "We have not been good enough," the manager said, "and we have to rectify that in the future."
No time like this month – the final between tonight's winners and either Germany or Italy is in Malmo on Monday – and the more recent and therefore relevant statistics tell an encouraging tale. Since coming together in August 2007, the current Under-21 squad have lost only two out of 22 matches, both of them friendlies. Pearce's only defeat in 17 competitive matches as manager was the 13-12 shoot-out against the Netherlands in the semi-final two years ago.
But that extraordinary night in Heerenveen cast a long shadow, from which England can emerge only by winning today. The parallels are unavoidable. Even though England are technically the home team tonight, it is once again to all intents and purposes an away game in front of a capacity crowd against a host country who have captured their people's imagination, in this case for lifting Swedish football out of the doldrums; their senior team are highly unlikely to qualify for next summer's World Cup.
Against the Netherlands, England were sucked into playing like an away side and, after taking the lead, hung on grimly until conceding an equaliser in the 89th minute. In extra time they were out on their feet, as was reflected in the final tally of 28 shots to five in the Netherlands' favour. Pearce even admitted this week that, with so many suspensions and injuries, his team would not have won the final against Serbia, which the Dutch duly did 4-1.
A lesson has been learnt there and tonight, after resting 10 players in the final group game, England have a full squad to choose from, while the Swedes have two key men banned. Pearce claims his troops play better away, as pace on the counter-attack is one of their strengths. That suggests the speedy Theo Walcott and Gabriel Agbonlahor, two of the squad's full internationals, should start, although Agbonlahor will have to produce a serious improvement on his recent form. James Milner, conveniently suspended for the last game, will win his 45th Under-21 cap and hope there is another to follow it on Monday.
Michael Mancienne may find Micah Richards and Nedum Onuoha edging him out to form a Manchester City club partnership in the centre of defence and it will be interesting to see whether Jack Rodwell, barely 18, but outstanding against Germany on Monday, forces his way into midfield at the expense of Lee Cattermole. Those charged primarily with defending will have their work cut out against Marcus Berg, the tournament's leading scorer and his partner Ola Toivonen.
The spectre of a penalty shoot-out looms again, having done for Pearce in three of his four semi-final appearances as player and manager. Nothing is being left to chance, with practice after every training session, opponents' penalties analysed, and England's takers being determined not in any haphazard way, but by all 23 squad members being graded according to their success rate. "In years gone by, when a manager walked out to the centre circle he did not know who his best penalty-takers were," Pearce said. "But I know because I have seen it every day for two years.
As for the historical aspect, he admitted: "We need to break through a semi-final barrier and not only that, we need to go and win something. If the Under-17s, Under-19s or Under-21s are the first to win something then that sets the foundation for the seniors. That has to be done." Or as his beloved Stranglers, who are playing in Sweden tonight, put it: "Something Better Change".
England (4-2-3-1, probable): Hart (Manchester City); Cranie (Portsmouth), Richards, Onuoha (both Manchester City), Gibbs (Arsenal); Muamba (Bolton), Rodwell (Everton); Milner (Aston Villa), Noble (West Ham), Walcott (Arsenal); Agbonlahor (Aston Villa).
Sweden (4-4-2, probable): Dahlin (Lyn Oslo); Lustig (Rosenborg), Bengtsson (Trelleborg), Bjarsmyr (IFK Gothenburg), Johansson (Hammarby); Elm (Kalmar), Svensson (IFK Gothenburg), Landgren (Helsingborg), Olsson (Blackburn); Berg (Groningen), Toivonen (PSV Eindhoven).
Referee: C Cakir (Turkey).
Remember the name
Rasmus Elm Kalmar and Sweden
The football family Elm were prominent as little Kalmar won the Swedish League for the first time in 2008 with Rasmus in midfield, plus older brothers David and Viktor in the side. This year he won his first senior cap and scored his first goal. Playing wide on the right, he has impressed at this tournament and is due to start tonight.Reuse content