Monday, June 15, 2009

England start Viking adventure with a win

UEFA U21 Championship: England 2:1 Finland

Halmstad, Sweden - At 7,500, the Orjans Vall in Halmstad, twice a venue in the 1958 World Cup, must be the smallest venue a lotEngland start Viking adventure with a win. of England's team have played in for a while, but by the time of Finland's first corner in the fourth minute, the blue and white fans who had crossed the border made it feel a lot larger.

When Chelsea's Michael Mancienne appeared to down Berat Sadik in the ninth minute and the referee waved away penalty claims, the howls from the disgruntled Finns bellowed around the small arena, making a little piece of Sweden feel forever Finnish.

England had been so eager to get going, Aston Villa's Gabriel Agbonlahor had jumped the starting whistle by sprinting into Finland's half before the referee blew.
It was a false start all right. For the first ten minutes, it was the last-ranked team who topped the first. Backed by their supporters and almost on home ground, the Finns attacked with zest, though the land where the javelin is king failed to spear England's solid back four. Then against the run of play on the quarter hour, England scored. Agbonlahor powered down the left and used his strength to stay on his feet long enough to draw it back for Lee Cattermole in the centre to slot home; a simple goal won by physical endeavour and a telling blindside run by the goalscorer.

England suddenly looked to have remembered their lines. James Milner's incisive cross from the right caused panic in the Finnish defence and from the resulting corner, Micah Richards nodded just wide of the upright.

Finland rocked momentarily, but soon re-found their rhythm, using their 4-2-3-1 shape to zip quickly up the middle. England needed to keep tabs on striker Perparim Hetermaj, who was running for every ball in his vicinity. Meanwhile, Stuart Pearce prowled the touchline all in black like an admiral on the bridge of the Death Star, a curious choice of outfit which must have been hot in the Swedish summer sun.

Just after the half hour the game turned as Mancienne raced Berat Sadik onto a long through-ball. The Chelsea defender seemed to have got ahead but lost a shoulder charge as he tried to head the ball back to his goalkeeper. He briefly hugged his overtaking opponent and the pair collapsing in a heap in the box. The referee, albeit some yards behind the play, handed England a double-whammy by awarding a penalty and flashing red at Mancienne, who was still shaking his head as he sat down disconsolate on the bench.

Skipper Tim Sparv slammed the spot-kick into the opposite corner to Joe Hart to make it 1-1.
This was not in the script: Finland might have been finals virgins but weren't about to lie back and think of England. They were fast and full of enthusiasm.

Unexpected territory for the Three Lions, who looked rocked as they shifted to a 4-1-3-1 formation with Milner at right-back, Fabrice Muamba anchoring and Theo Walcott switching wings to the right.

Half time arrived with a chance scooped over by Perparim Hetermaj, Finland's most dangerous man. The Finns had exceeded expectations while England had work to do.

Pearce wasted no time disrespecting reputations, subbing Walcott at the half for Manchester United's rarely-used Frazier Campbell. Psycho himself had lightened up a little at the interval, exchanging his all-black number for a top with some grey patches.

England regained their lead almost effortlessly again eight minutes after the break. Finnish goalkeeper Anssi Jaakola had just tipped a vicious free kick from Milner away for a corner before the Aston Villa man's restart soared perfectly into the box for Micah Richards to head majestically into the bottom corner of the net.

The second half lacked the first's drama, as England's lack of a man made them unwilling to venture in numbers upfield, while Finland began to tire as their final balls lost all relationship to their shirt colour.

Finland might still have nicked a draw in the final exchanges. With a minute left Teemu Pukki shot straight at Hart from the edge of the box and moments later the blond baby-faced attacker dribbled through England's box only for Hart to deny him again. Deep into time added-on, Perparim Hetermaj, so quiet after a rumbustious first half, speared a yard over from the edge of the box and Suomi were spent.

The last time England kicked off a tournament in Sweden it ended with a frustrating 0-0 draw against a Scandinavian side in Euro '92. England, with Stuart Pearce at left-back, went home before the postcards and the Danes shocked everyone by going on to win it.

After tonight's opener, the roles could be reversed.

Two streakers interrupted proceedings at separate times, unable to contain their love of summer. If they go all the way, England might be about to join them. Next up for Pearce's men is Germany in Gothenburg on Thursday.

England: Hart, Cranie, Cattermole, Milner, Agbonlahor (Rodwell 85'), Noble, Muamba, Walcott (Campbell 45'), Richards (Tomkins 89'), Mancienne, Gibbs
Finland: Jaakola, Raitala, Portin, Turunen, Sparv, Hamalainen (Vasara 80'), Mehmet Hetermaj (Vakola 85') , Sadik, Parikka (Pukki 70'), Aho, Perparim Hetermaj.

ENG -Cattermole 15'
FIN- Sparv 33' (p)
ENG - Richards 53'

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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