The England U21’s continued their qualification campaign for the 2011 European Championships v. Macedonia Friday at the Ricoh Arena in Coventry. The match featured Premier League & Championship talent from the (young) Three Lions & ended up being quite an exciting & high scoring 9-goal affair.
Stuart Pearce favored Newcastle striker Andy Carroll & Arsenal’s Theo Walcott partnering up front with a 5-man midfield consisting of Tom Cleverley & Kieran Gibbs on either flank, with Danny Rose, Jack Rodwell & Jack Wilshire filling out the middle. Pearce settled with 3 at the back consisting of Micah Richards, James Tomkins & Michael Mancienne covering Scott Loach in goal.
After a slow opening 9 minutes, Andy Carroll had England’s first real chance when Tom Cleverley crossed from the wing – Carroll almost nipped in with a header before a Macedonia defender cleared the danger. The next 10-12 minutes were all England as the English midfielders linked up well with each other & smoothly passed the ball around the pristine pitch.
The breakthrough came in the 22nd minute as 2 of the talented Arsenal youngsters linked up – Danny Rose crossed from central midfield to Cleverley on the right wing who then slotted diagonally to Walcott. Walcott (barely on side) beat the Macedonia keeper by centering to Kieran Gibbs who easily headed past the lone Macedonian defender whose attempt to clear off the line failed. Walcott to Gibbs, 1-0 England.
England doubled their lead just 7 minutes later in the 29th when Jack Wilshire took England’s first corner of the match – his quality ball in found Michael Mancienne outside the near post who flicked on just in front of the England Captain Micah Richards who headed past right in front of the keeper – poorly defended by Macedonia in the end, but quality play by England. (A situation that would repeat itself a few more times over the course of the match.)
Macedonia made it a game in the 41st when Cleverly conceded a free kick just outside & to the right of the box. Macedonia’s Muarem took a low free kick straight towards the England goal that seemed to trickle in past 2 England players & past the keeper – a very soft goal conceded by Scott Loach & surly not the way Pearce wanted to end the half.
20 year old Zavon Hines replaced Walcott after the break who was said to have suffered from a dead leg. The 2nd half featured more of the same from England, who dominated possession with their organized 5-man midfield. 3 minutes after the restart, Andy Carroll received a brilliant long ball from Kieran Gibbs but could only manage a strike that found the side netting.
Surprise to England supporters came in the 53rd minute when Macedonia’s #10 Ibraimi fired home the equalizer from a routine long ball. It was route 1 football from the visitors, but Mancienne was to blame for going to ground seconds before Ibraimi struck. 2-2, but not for long. Seconds later, Andy Carroll struck off a header provided from Kieran Gibbs – Gibbs now assisting one after his earlier score. 3-2 England. Neither defenses looking very confident.
Solidifying that last statement came in the 58th when the aforementioned Gibbs, whilst attempting a clearance from the inside of his own penalty area, sliced a Macedonian corner into the back of his own net. Gibbs now with a hand in 3 goals. 3-3, England knocked back yet again.
You knew it was coming, England’s 4th of the night came from Zavon Hines in the 67th when Tom Cleverely put Hines through 1 on 1 with the keeper. Hines slotted home straight through the keepers legs. A well taken finish from Hines on his debut.
England continued to press deep into the night & missed numerous chances before catching their 5th from Carroll in the 87th who finished neatly turning back towards goal to elude a Macedonian defender. It’s fair to say Macedonia were shocking in defense most of the night & England may have played a bit down to their competition in conceding 3 goals. England’s 6th came from Hines again well after the contest had been decided. Hines drilled a volley past the keeper from a neat, chipped ball from Carroll who was on a hat trick himself, but fed the debutante from inside the box. 6-3. Done & dusted.
Friday’s qualifier comes just over 3 months after England lost in stunning fashion to Germany in the Euro 2009 final in Sweden, 4-0. The defeat in the final & tonight’s victory raises the question: what’s wrong with the U21 back line? Did Pearce underestimate the Macedonian attack, or overestimate the quality of his 3 defenders to back up Loach in goal?
Whatever the answer, England’s U21’s dominated the majority of possession playing organized football (going forward) & did well creating numerous chances in front of a weak defense. The match never felt like a stunning display from England much at all throughout the night. It was a sloppy goal fest when the whistle was blown after 4 added minutes of stoppage time. Plain & simple, England won a match they should have won. But can they beat teams that posses more talent & quality than (no offense to them) lowly Macedonia? Can England overcome a full-strength Germany, France, Spain, Italy or Netherlands in a Semi-Final or Final away from home? Pearce fielded a team Friday that included only 4 starters from that dreadful final in late June. Does he know what his current best 11 are?
The current Senior squad has been playing brilliant, smart, effective & (most importantly) winning football under Fabio Capello. But in the next 3-5 years, many players on the current U21 roster will have a chance to prove themselves on the Senior level. Will Pearce be the one to take the U21’s over the summit of the next European Championship? Will he one day realize his dream of taking the helm of the National side? Only time will tell. For now though, England fans can enjoy putting 6 past an opponent & the endless dreams that rest upon the Senior squad come next Summer.