x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

European U21 Championship: England to do more with less

New Manchester United winger Wilfried Zaha will be key in opener against Italy as suspensions and injuries leave little room for error, writes Richard Jolly.

England’s Wilfried Zaha will be in the spotlight this week. Ian Walton / Getty Images
England’s Wilfried Zaha will be in the spotlight this week. Ian Walton / Getty Images

To many, mention of 1984 conjures up images of George Orwell's dystopian nightmare. For football fans who ignore the novel of the same name, 1984 invokes memories of Liverpool's Treble of the League Cup, the league title and the European Cup.

Even for the national team, the first image the year conjures is John Barnes's extraordinary solo goal against Brazil in the Maracana.

And yet, 1984 has a real significance in English football. It was the last time the Under 21 team became European champions. In the subsequent 29 years, it is not just the senior side that has been starved of silverware.

While there is not always a direct correlation between success at junior levels and in full internationals, the last three winners of Europe's Under 21 title - Spain, Germany and Holland - also claimed the podium positions at the 2010 World Cup.

Thankfully for England, those three are all in the same pool for the 2013 Under 21 tournament in Israel, while England are in the other group with Italy, Norway and the hosts.

It is manager Stuart Pearce's fourth finals in six years, but while his consistent qualifiers were runners-up in 2009, his side have never been the ultimate victors.

The chances are that they won't be this time, either. If pessimism is ingrained in English football, there are legitimate reasons to doubt the prospects of a team who are unbeaten in nine games and 16 months, without conceding a goal in that time.

Four of the eligible players - goalscorer Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain of Arsenal, the Manchester United pair of Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck and Manchester City's Jack Rodwell - were taken to the Maracana with England's senior side by Roy Hodgson for a friendly with Brazil.

Had they been fit, Arsenal's Jack Wilshere and Tottenham Hotspur's Kyle Walker would have been in Brazil, too.

Injuries also ruled Liverpool winger Raheem Sterling, Wigan Athletic prospect Callum McManaman and Luke Shaw of Southampton out of Pearce's party. Strangest of all, Tottenham winger Andros Townsend withdrew while the Football Association investigates betting allegations.

In short, this is not the strongest side. Indeed, even within the squad, Pearce cannot pick his best team for today's opener against Italy.

Tottenham's Danny Rose was sent off after the final whistle in the play-off game against Serbia, when he was subjected to racial abuse; Thomas Ince was involved in a subsequent fracas when the Serbs were the instigators. To Uefa's discredit, both are banned tonight.

And so the spotlight falls firmly on Wilfried Zaha. The Manchester United-bound winger, whose £15 million (Dh84m) transfer was arranged in January but will be completed in the summer, departed Crystal Palace having secured promotion to the Premier League. He won the decisive penalty in last the play-off final just over a week ago. His trickery can be intoxicating, his solo runs almost endless as Zaha tries to beat opponent after opponent.

Indeed, if England are to prosper in the tournament, it will be because of wingers from the second-tier Championship. More direct than Zaha, Ince delivered 18 goals for Blackpool last season, prompting a January bid from Liverpool, his former club.

A third wide man from the second flight, the uncapped Nathan Redmond of Birmingham City, was called up when Townsend pulled out.

Yet lacking the stardust of the Spanish, Italian, German and Dutch sides, most of whom have pulled players out of the senior squad in their bid for victory, Pearce is hoping England can compensate with unity and determination.

"As far as team ethic goes and a willingness to want to achieve, this group is as strong a group as I have worked with in the four championships," he said. "The camaraderie of the group is as good as I have worked with."

They have five full internationals - Jack Butland, Steven Caulker, Jordan Henderson, Jonjo Shelvey and Zaha - but begin as outsiders. And yet the men they are trying to emulate are not all household names.

Two years after the triumph in 1984, Steve Hodge was a World Cup quarter-finalist. Two months after it, Mark Hateley was an AC Milan player.

Yet Peter Hucker, Mitch D'Avray and Kevin Brock have fewer claims to fame.

Now this group of England players aim to imitate the forgotten men.


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