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Monday, June 25, 2007
The future is bright for some

Stuart Pearce's season, lengthier and more painful than most, reached an agonising end in the Netherlands last week. Yet in the process, the proudest of patriots restored England's reputation for heroic failure in international tournaments, earning a rapid personal rehabilitation after Manchester City's decline.

Because the England Under-21s, while exiting the European Championships at the semi-finals after the most dramatic of penalty shootouts, stood in stark contrast to the senior side with their ignominious failure in last year's World Cup.

That was among the most talented of teams in the tournament, yet noted for constant self-pitying whingeing. Pearce's protégés, however, were denied many of their most gifted players, from the refuseniks David Bentley and Gabriel Agbonlahor to the injured Darren Bent, Micah Richards, Curtis Davies and Theo Walcott, not to mention those who were eligible but had long progressed to the full team, a list headed by Wayne Rooney but also including Stewart Downing and Jermaine Jenas.

In their absence, fringe players emerged. Nedum Onuoha, expected to rank fourth of the four central defenders in Pearce's party, showed his maturity in starting every game. In the centre of midfield, Mark Noble, maintaining his end-of-season form, displaced Tom Huddlestone. In attack, Leroy Lita's ebullience enabled him to recover from embarrassing misses to score three times.

Yet, although they were the first England team for almost two decades to reach the last four, it is unlikely that an entire generation will graduate to the full team. Indeed, the last English winners, the class of 1984, don't provide an encouraging precedent. They accumulated only 83 caps, 56 of them shared by Steve Hodge and Mark Hateley, worthy players but hardly in the category of all-time greats.

The current squad already have recognition from Steve McClaren, granted to David Nugent and Kieran Richardson who, despite his eight full caps, contrived to be culled from Pearce's side for the semi-final, a sign of his continuing mediocrity. Instead, judging by his manager's eulogy, Steven Taylor is the most likely candidate to feature for the first team. His bravery in the semi-final invoked mentions of Terry Butcher, a man with a similar outlook to Pearce himself. Yet John Terry and Jamie Carragher block the way for committed central defenders with lionheart pretensions.

The captain Nigel Reo-Coker, singled out for praise by UEFA's Roy Hodgson, provided an injection of energy without suggesting he will displace Steven Gerrard or Owen Hargreaves. While Ashley Young, whose trickery and incision suggest Martin O'Neill's £9.65million valuation may not be so excessive, could present McClaren with a speedier alternative on the left flank.

On the right, the estimable James Milner, whose season eventually entailed an exhausting 64 games, also emerged with a greater reputation. However, the Newcastle winger's eventual lot is more likely to be a record tally of Under-21 caps rather than a call from McClaren. Indeed, the individual with the greatest cause for optimism may be Scott Carson, who himself passed the previous record of 27 appearances for the Under-21s and was arguably England's player of the tournament.

At times, he needed to be. Mirroring the senior side, ball retention was a problem for England, the reversion to a four-man midfield enabling opponents to dominate possession.

Others displayed a greater aptitude for it. Among the most impressive, despite their failure to progress from the group stages, were Italy. An unexpected weakness at the heart of their defence proved costly, but in other departments of the team, they showed enough to suggest that Pierluigi Casiraghi may have managed the long-term successors to Marcello Lippi's World Cup winners.

The captain and left-back Giorgio Chiellini bears a physical resemblance to Marco Materazzi and plays with the same determination as the Inter defender. Giampaolo Pazzini, scorer of the first Wembley hat-trick, is another potential recruit for the Azzurri, along with the attacking midfielder Riccardo Montolivo. Their most accomplished player, however, was the Roma midfielder Alberto Aquilani, already a full international and a reason why Italy should have progressed to the last four.

Their only consolation is qualification for the Olympics, courtesy of beating Portugal on penalties. As with the Italians, there is evidence that the Portuguese found their role models in the senior side. Joao Moutinho resembled Deco and Man Utd new-boy Nani appears a student of Cristiano Ronaldo's tricks, which represents bad news for opposing full-backs at Old Trafford next season. Manuel Fernandes and the shot-happy Silvestre Varela were also worthy of note in an enterprising midfield.

But in their stead, the semi-finalists were Belgium, surpassing expectations, though not as much as Serbia. The 20/1 outsiders at the outset advanced to the final even if their outstanding individual, Real Mallorca's Bosko Jankovic, did not exercise the domination his skill promised. The centre-back Branislav Ivanovic excelled but, though they were well organised and technically adept, the lasting impression of Serbia may have been left by a racist section of their support.

Quite what punishment UEFA applies remains to be seen, but it was fitting that Serbia were defeated at the last by Holland, the best team of the tournament. In Royston Drenthe, they had the finest player, an exuberant, dreadlocked left-footer with a physical similarity to Edgar Davids, though he prowled the touchline, not the centre circle.

Maceo Rigters, whose equalising overhead kick against England was the tournament's outstanding goal, finished as the top scorer. With Ryan Babel, an embryonic Thierry Henry who declared his eagerness to join Arsenal, he formed a talented strike duo while Ajax's Hedwiges Maduro proved a composed central midfielder. They enabled the Dutch to defend their title, though with a vastly different team to that of 12 months ago.

And with the generation of Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Rafael van der Vaart little older, Foppe de Haan's side's success means there will be obvious assertions that the future is both bright and orange. If the last fortnight provides an accurate guide, they could be true nonetheless.

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