A determined performance of collective spirit and character saw the England Under-21 side claim a place at next summer's European Championships in Denmark thanks to a goalless draw in Romania. Stuart Pearce's young lions held on despite concerted Romanian pressure in Botosani and ultimately Chris Smalling's late winner that had given England a 2-1 victory in Friday's first leg proved to be decisive.
England spent long periods of the game on the defensive but despite several anxious moments England goalkeeper Frankie Fielding and the back four were able to keep the clean sheet that guaranteed play-off victory.
Pearce reflected that his team's togetherness was the factor that saw them come through a testing examination, although he admitted he had to give them a talking to at half-time. "Make no mistake, it [to qualify] means a lot to those players," Pearce said. "I'm fortunate enough to see the camaraderie every day; everything they do around the hotel and on the training pitch as well, the players have got a real togetherness about them and when you've got that you take it to the training pitch and away from it and it builds, and when you get a little bit of adversity, like we had today, it manifests itself.
"Credit to them – only the players can generate that amongst themselves. We've got eight months to build on going to a major finals. I don't think there's another major nation that have played at Under-21 level that have been to three European finals, so credit to this group and the groups that have gone before them.
"Credit to Romania, they went after the game and put us on the back foot and we had to defend stoutly," Pearce added. "What we did show was determination and it was a really gutsy performance, certainly from the goalkeeper. Right through the team we showed guts and a few things were said at half-time in the dressing room, and the players took that on board."
England's best chance fell to Chelsea striker Daniel Sturridge, who raced on to Danny Welbeck's through ball but hit his shot too close to Romanian goalkeeper Silviu Lung. Romania created several good opportunities and Fielding almost allowed a long-range effort from Sabrin Sburlea to squirm from his grasp.
However the young Blackburn keeper made several key stops to ensure England's progress, much to the delight of Pearce. "He [Fielding] was fantastic. He's got a knack of keeping the ball out of the net and I think he's only conceded one goal in six games. There were some really tricky shots and they really peppered the goal," Pearce said. "He kept his eye on everything and kept us a clean sheet, which is all you can ask of him. He's delivered today and so has the rest of the team."
Pearce's young England made it to the final in 2009, where they lost 4-0 to a German side that was orchestrated by the outstanding Mesut Ozil. Pearce has lost the likes of Joe Hart, James Milner, Theo Walcott and Adam Johnson to the senior squad since, but in 18-year-old Jack Wilshere – who was missing yesterday after being called up by Fabio Capello – they possess a player that could prove to be a significant factor in June in Denmark. His team-mates did not need him yesterday in Romania, but they surely will if they are to live up to their potential next summer.
Romania Under-21s (4-4-2): Lung; Rapa (Chiriches), Papp, Barboianu, Gaman; Gardos, Hora (Gangioveanu), Bicfalvi, Alexe (Rusescu); Torje, Sburlea.
England Under-21s (4-4-2): Fielding (Blackburn Rovers); Mancienne (Wolves), Smalling (Manchester United), Jones (Blackburn), Bertrand (Nottingham Forest); Rose (Tottenham Hotspur), Muamba (Bolton), Cleverley (Man Utd), Henderson (Sunderland); Welbeck (Man Utd), Sturridge (Chelsea). Substitutes used Lansbury (Arsenal) for Sturridge, 60; Cork (Burnley) for Rose, 75; Delfouneso (Aston Villa) for Welbeck, 89.
Referee F Fautrel (France)
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