Young Lions will scrap but they lack class to win Euros

England's Under-21s are workers not wonders so Pearce's final dream is unlikely
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The Independent Football

England start their European Championship campaign in Sweden against Finland tomorrow. So what are the chances for Stuart Pearce's side?

Who's playing for England?

Not everyone they had hoped for. As is so often the case at tournament finals, a number of players are unavailable, including some of the more experienced ones, like Newcastle's defender Steven Taylor, who would have been captain, and Tottenham's Tom Huddlestone and Aaron Lennon. But Theo Walcott and James Milner have now joined up from the senior squad and should feature in a strong attack, probably with Gabriel Agbonlahor. Mark Noble, who will drive them forward from midfield, is one of four players remaining from the finals of 2007, as well as Milner, Joe Hart and Nedum Onuoha.

What's their record like?

England won the competition in 1982 and 1984, but reaching the semi-final two years ago was the first time they had got that far since 1988. In 26 games since Pearce took over in February 2007, there have been only two defeats in normal time, plus the loss to Holland on penalties at the last event.

What's the manager saying?

Pearce naturally regrets the loss of some experienced players but believes the replacements have fitted in well. "I'm very happy with the 23 I've got," he said. "They haven't bought into the normal nonsense about being tired at the end of the season and having played too many games. The more experience you get at major tournaments the better. I've been to three as a player and reached the semi-final stage on two of those. I've been here once as a manager and reached a semi-final. I'd like to go one further and win it. That would be massive for English football."

Is it a difficult group?

Finland, tomorrow's opponents, are probably the weakest team in Group B, so a win is essential. In six meetings at this level, they have only beaten England once, in 1985. Then come Spain and Germany. The Spaniards almost failed to qualify in the play-off against Switzerland and have not won any of four warm-up matches. Gerard Pique and Sergio Busquets, who are both eligible, have gone to the Confederations Cup instead. Germany were also close to going out in the play-offs against France, who outplayed England in a recent friendly.

Who else are competing?

Sweden, as hosts, qualified automatically and are in Group A with Belarus, Italy and Serbia. Their results under Tommy Soderberg, a manager of the senior team for six years, and Jorgen Lennartsson have been impressive and include a 3-0 drubbing of the holders Holland (who failed to get through the group stage). The Swedes have also drawn against Italy and Spain. Italy and Serbia both had lively games against England in the 2007 finals and should be strong again.

Any foreign stars in the making?

Spain's Bojan Krkic almost qualifies as one already, having played 23 games this season for Barcelona, 10 in the Champions' League. Although left out of the winning Euro 2008 squad, he made his full internatioinal debut last September. Serbia's Zoran Tosic, with three Manchester United appearances, will be hoping to push his claims for more games next season now that Cristiano Ronaldo has gone. Mario Balotelli, an Italian striker with Ghanaian parents, has impressed at Jose Mourinho's Internazionale and Germany have high hopes of the Werder Bremen playmaker Mesut Ozil.

Will the Premier League scouts be there?

You bet. The last tournament produced a whole crop of signings for English clubs, some of whom did rather better than others. Holland's success led to transfers for Ryan Babel (to Liverpool), Daniel de Ridder (Birmingham, now Wigan), Maceo Rigters (Blackburn, Norwich and Barnsley) and Ryan Donk (West Bromwich). The official Player of the Tournament, flying winger Royston Drenthe, moved to Real Madrid. Marouane Fellaini, later to join Everton, enhanced his reputation in Belgium's team and Tosic played against England.

So what are England's chances?

The first XI should be strong, especially going forward, with Fraizer Campbell as back-up to Walcott and Agbonlahor. The midfield will be workmanlike, though, without an outstanding playmaker. Injuries to Taylor and David Wheater mean there is no established centre-back pairing, although Arsenal's Kieran Gibbs has emerged to fill a hole at left-back and Hart should be dependable in goal. Overall then, about the same as most England sides at most tournaments: they will be competitive but may lack the little bit of class to go all the way.

England squad

Goalkeepers: Joe Hart (Manchester City), Joe Lewis (Peterborough United), Scott Loach (Watford). Defenders: Martin Cranie (Portsmouth), Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal), Michael Mancienne (Chelsea), Nedum Onuoha (Manchester City), Micah Richards (Manchester City), Richard Stearman (Wolves), Andrew Taylor (Middlesbrough), James Tomkins (West Ham).

Midfielders: Lee Cattermole (Wigan), Andrew Driver (Hearts), Craig Gardner (Aston Villa), Adam Johnson (Middlesbrough), James Milner (Aston Villa), Fabrice Muamba (Bolton), Mark Noble (West Ham), Jack Rodwell (Everton), Danny Rose (Tottenham).

Forwards: Theo Walcott (Arsenal) Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa), Fraizer Campbell (Manchester United).

Remember the last time?

Holland 2007 – Group matches

England 0 Czech Republic 0

After David Bentley pulled out of the squad and Gabriel Agbonlahor "could not be contacted" as a replacement, England were held in their opening game when Leroy Lita put a late penalty wide.

England 2 Italy 2

Italy fought back from 2-0 down after goals by David Nugent and Lita. Their coach, the former Chelsea striker Pierluigi Casiraghi, had a touchline spat with Stuart Pearce, claiming the England coach showed disrespect and was "not the nicest person".

England 2 Serbia 0

On a tempestuous night, Nedum Onuoha suffered racist abuse from some of the Serbian fans and Tom Huddlestone was sent off four minutes after appearing as a substitute. England progressed to the semi-final against weakened opposition with goals by Lita and Matt Derbyshire.

Semi-final: Holland 1 England 1 (Holland won 13-12 on pens)

The host country's late equalising goal set the stage for an extraordinary shoot-out. Goalkeeper Scott Carson scored one penalty, James Milner, Mark Noble and Ashley Young scored two each. But a miss by Anton Ferdinand saw Ryan Babel's Holland through to the final, where they defeated Serbia 4-1.

Steve Tongue

Four to watch

Joe Hart (Manchester City)

Losing his place at Manchester City to Shay Given since the January transfer window has badly affected the promising goalkeeper's prospects of full England caps. A good tournament in Sweden can enhance them again now that he has secured a move to Birmingham, on loan for 12 months, with the chance to play regularly next season, then make a permanent move.

Kieran Gibbs (Arsenal)

The full-back, still only 19, did not make his debut at this level until February but has already played in a Champions' League semi-final and FA Cup semi-final as deputy for Gaël Clichy. He was outstanding in the last warm-up match against Azerbaijan, making one goal from left-back in the first half before moving into midfield, where he used to play at a younger age, and scoring twice.

Theo Walcott (Arsenal)

Arsène Wenger is adamant that he should be on a beach but after missing four months of the season, Walcott is keen to play in what England hope will be the first of many international tournaments. Seemed to have made his breakthrough with the hat-trick in Croatia last autumn, then dislocated his shoulder and now has to prove he is completely over the operation.

Gabriel Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)

Should have been involved two years ago but mysteriously proved uncontactable as a replacement when David Bentley controversially pulled out of the squad. With two starts for the senior team this season, his experience ought to be invaluable. With Walcott likely to play on the right, he may have to revert to a more central position and provide the principal scoring threat.