Thursday, June 18, 2009

England sink Spain to reach semis

UEFA u21 Championship: England 2:0 Spain
Span v England.
New Ullevi Stadium, Gothenburg
England eased into the semi-finals of the European U21 championship after comfortably disposing of a disappointing Spain in Gothenburg.

On a blustery and chilly evening by the Baltic, two second half goals from Fraizer Campbell and James Milner gave Stuart Pearce's team its second straight win and passage along with Germany into the last four. The catalyst for victory was Arsenal's Theo Walcott. The hyped wunderkind of the tournament had surprisingly been substituted at half time against Finland and benched for tonight's encounter. For over an hour, Pearce resisted the pressure to unleash the young Gunner before his exhausted game strategies left him no option but to throw him in to try to break the stalemate. When Walcott crossed the white line, the stadium issued its loudest roar and his high-speed soccer had immediate impact.

Spain's U21s were never as dazzling as their senior European champions, though cut from the same cloth, playing balls low to feet at varying tempos. Like England's proteges, their young guns were no novices, packed with La Liga experience from clubs like Barcelona and Villareal.

England were closely-stacked in comparison, solid, muscular and almost German in their regimentation. The body language of the coaches told a tale of two cultures as well. Juan Ramon Lopez Caro, a one-time caretaker at the Bernabeu, was a flailing mass of Latin gesticulations, like a carrier bag blown around by the stiff winds tormenting Gothenburg all day.

Pearce was less mobile as he strutted, brooding and intense.

The first half hour was shadow-boxing, only enlivened when England centre-back Nedum Onuoha beat his goalkeeper with a back pass; Joe Hart scrambled back in time to spare his colleague's blushes.

Then Real Madrid's Javi Garcia let England in after losing the ball to the eager James Milner twenty yards out and tripping the Aston Villa man as he muscled towards goal. Milner aimed his spot-kick at the bottom corner but Sergio Asenjo darted like a swift to tip it away.

Pearce looked puzzled, his game-plan unravelling. Bojan Krkic briefly drew wows from the crowd when he dragged back and curled wide of the upright, before Gabriel Agbonlahor hobbled off six minutes before the break. Another reshuffle for England's attack, with Campbell deputising.

Honours even at the interval, the Spanish had yet to catch fire, only offering hints of danger with the lanky right midfielder Javi Martinez a possible outlet.

Martinez beat Hart to a punt in the 55th minute and the England goalie, suddenly in no-man's-land, was rescued by Martin Cranie's goal-line clearance. Another close shave.

With Krkic off to the displeasure of the neutrals, enter England's rising star, a 62nd minute replacement for Middlesbrough's Adam Johnson. The Three Lions were at once galvanised, Gibbs penetrated and Milner charged while Walcott raced. They did not wait long for a reward.

In the 67th minute, Milner gleefully stole a thoughtless backpass and fed Campbell, who sidestepped Garcia before firing past Asenjo.

Five minutes later England had clear water between them and the Spanish. Walcott flicked his afterburners on and left Javi Garcia trailing in his wake. Haring to the byline in classic winger fashion, he drew the ball back smartly for the incoming Milner to sidefoot home and make it 2-0.

Two cannonades had winded the Armada and Spain looked shorn of invention, though Hart did well to stop Raul Garcia's drilled free kick low to his right.

When Jose Manuel Jurado fired into the upper tier with two minutes remaining, they were spent, outgunned by the more clinical team. Caro's eleven had promised much but failed to deliver at the whistle, a familiar narrative from Spain's archive of disappointment before Euro 2008. They had outpassed and outshot their opponents in Gothenburg, but it is goals that win games.

And England, however slow they are starting their games, appear to have mastered the art of winning while playing badly; a sure sign they will go far in this competition. Spain, eliminated, play Finland on Monday for the wooden spoon, while England face Germany in Halmstad for the bragging rights from Group B.

Scoring:

ENG - Campbell 67'
ENG - Milner 73'
Lineups -

ENG - Joe Hart, Martin Cranie, Kieran Gibbs, Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha, Lee Cattermole, Fabrice Muamba, James Milner (Craig Gardner 84'), Mark Noble, Adam Johnson (Theo Walcott 62'), Gabriel Agbonlahor (Frazier Campbell 39')

SPA- Sergio Asenjo, Nacho Monreal, Javi Garcia, Marc Torrejon, Cesar Azpilicueta, Raul Garcia, Mario Suarez (Pedro Leon 80'), Javi Martinez (Xisco 69'), Jose Manuel Jurado, Bojan Krkic (Diego Capel 58'), Adrian Lopez.

Att: 16,123

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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