Stuart Pearce's Under-21s need goals to create breathing space

 

England go into the European Under-21 Championship finals in Israel this week as the only country to have qualified for the past four tournaments, all of them under Stuart Pearce, who replaced Peter Taylor as manager in 2007. They approach what may be Pearce's swansong – he has always said he wishes to return to club management – in fine form but with the usual crop of players unavailable, partly because Roy Hodgson wants the best ones for the senior squad.

Who are England up against?

In Group A they play Italy in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Norway in Petah Tikva on Saturday and hosts Israel in Jerusalem on 11 June.

Why Israel, are they in Europe?

For the purposes of European football – and the Eurovision Song Contest – yes. They played in the Asian Confederation for 20 years until 1974, then in Oceania, and finally became members of Uefa in 1994. England and Wales both applied to stage the tournament.

What about the other group?

It comprises Spain, the holders, who beat Switzerland in the final two years ago with a team including Juan Mata and David de Gea; Germany, who won the previous tournament; Holland, winners of the one before that – although both those two countries failed to qualify in 2011 – and Russia.

What's England's current form?

Outstanding. They have won their past nine games without conceding a goal. Their last defeat was a qualifier in Belgium in 2011, the only game lost out of 15 since the previous finals. The other 14 were all won, with a goal difference of 43-4. They won their qualifying group by five points from Norway.

Don't they usually come close?

Yes, but not close enough. England have not won the finals since doing a double under Dave Sexton in 1982 and '84. Pearce's side reached the semi-finals in 2007, losing an epic penalty shoot-out to the hosts and eventual winners, Holland, 13-12. Two years later, they won a semi-final shoot-out against the hosts, Sweden, but lost the final 4-0 to Germany, when three players were suspended. In 2011, they were about to go through to the last four but conceded two goals in the final two minutes to the Czech Republic and went out.

Any key players missing?

Raheem Sterling was ruled out before the squad of 23 was named, since when Callum McManaman, Andros Townsend and Luke Shaw have all withdrawn. Jack Wilshere (injured anyway), Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Danny Welbeck, Phil Jones, Kyle Walker and Jack Rodwell are all with the seniors in Brazil.

So who will they be relying on?

Crystal Palace's departing Wilfried Zaha picked up a knock in the Championship play-off final but joined the squad preparing in Turkey yesterday, as did Watford's Nathan Chalobah, on loan from Chelsea. Sunderland's Connor Wickham and Bolton's Marvin Sordell are the only other strikers in the squad, so midfielders such as the captain, Jordan Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey, Henri Lansbury and Nathan Delfouneso will have to contribute.

What is Stuart Pearce saying?

England have drawn seven of their 12 games in the three previous finals, so he knows how tight these matches tend to be and how small things can decide them. "You need to make sure you keep injuries to a minimum, making sure recovery is right, and not overcook the players at the end of the season when they have had a long season," he said. "There are a lot of good teams going to the championship this year and it's probably the strongest it has ever been. It will be a good test for us."

So who will win?

Spain and Germany, England and Italy will be favourites to qualify from the two groups for the semi-finals, at which point anything could happen. The former pair were both unbeaten in their qualifying campaign and a further form guide is that two years ago Spain won the Under-19 Uefa tournament, from which several players have graduated to join five survivors such as De Gea and Barcelona's Thiago Alcantara from the winning Under-21 squad. The Spanish must be considered favourites for yet another trophy. England, as the statistics show, have a reliable defence in front of Jack Butland but may not manage enough goals when it matters.

England v Italy is on Sky Sports 2 on Wednesday, kick-off 7.30pm

Nine wins, no goals conceded

England last conceded a goal just before the end of a 2-1 defeat by Belgium in November 2011, 812 minutes ago. The record since then:

Feb 2012 Belgium (h) 4-0 (Lansbury 2, Caulker, Oxlade-Chamberlain pen)

Sept 2012 Azerbaijan (a) 2-0 (Caulker, Shelvey)

Sept 2012 Norway (h) 1-0 (Wickham)

Oct 2012 Serbia (h) 1-0 (Dawson pen)

Oct 2012 Serbia (a) 1-0 (Wickham)

Nov 2012 N Ireland (h) 2-0 (Wickham, Afobe pen)

Feb 2013 Sweden (home) 4-0 (Ince 2, Shelvey, Wickham)

March 2013 Romania (home) 3-0 (Zaha, Robinson, Delfouneso)

March 2013 Austria (h) 4-0 (Shelvey, McEachran pen, Sordell, Wickham)

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