Thursday, June 18, 2009
ESPNsoccernet: June 19, 11:09 AM UK
Pearce's England reach semi-finals
Spain 0-2 England
England qualified for the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championships with a convincing win over Spain in Gothenburg on Thursday night, helped along by a returning Theo Walcott and another cameo appearance from Frazier Campbell.
Campbell gave England the lead in the 67th minute before James Milner added the second from close range five minutes later. Milner's ninth goal for England's U21s came after great work by Arsenal forward Walcott down the left flank.
After the game England coach Stuart Pearce countered criticism from the press pack who suggested that omitting 20-year-old Walcott - following a poor game against Finland - was a big decision to make.
''I don't personally think it was a big call to leave him out,'' said Pearce. ''A week ago I said that Theo would be treated like any other player in the squad of 23. What I ask from all the players is that if they are left [out of the starting team] that they give a reaction when they step over the line.
''We saw exactly what Theo was about as a man and as a player today. He reacted exactly the way I expected him to. We felt the game would get stretched a little bit in the second half and we felt he could have an impact in the game coming in off the bench.''
The slogan of this tournament is 'Stars of Tomorrow', but a lot of these players are already household names and big attractions in their own right, a fact which explains the rapturous response Walcott's introduction in the 62nd minute brought from the 16,123 fans inside Gothenburg's Gamla Ullevi Stadium. Five minutes early the supporters had shown their displeasure at Spanish coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro's decision to take off Barcelona youngster Bojan Krkic.
Explaining his decision to drop Walcott, Pearce insisted that being capped for the senior England squad does not result in immunity and that he will pick players on form, not reputation.
''James Milner came off the pitch tonight, someone else took his place, Theo Walcott didn't start the game but came on and put in an outstanding performance. They all have to accept that. And they do accept it. It's only the outside world, outside our dressing room, that find it difficult to understand.''
Understandably, Pearce preferred to talk about a fine performance from Bolton Wanderers midfielder Fabrice Muamba.
''That's as good a performance [from] a holding midfielder as you've ever seen, and probably, without him in our team tonight, we'd have lost.''
''All the lads gave 110% today, but I thought Fabrice Muamba was man of the match,'' agreed Micah Richards, who was himself awarded the man of the match trophy by UEFA's technical group after the game. ''I think they found it very difficult to break us down and he was key to that, he broke down everything that came his way. Credit to Theo Walcott as well, he did well when he came on, and we're really happy to get the three points.''
Victory over Spain means England are certain of a semi-final place, even before facing Germany in Monday's final Group B fixture, and as the tournament progresses Pearce was keen to stress the importance of squad rotation.
''If we're going to get over the finish line in a week-and-a-half's time, we're only going to do it with 23 players, we're never going to do it with 11," Pearce said. "When you come to these tournaments, and you want to be successful, all 23 have to contribute.''
''England-Germany is a massive game, and we're going to attempt to win the match. You get judged on whether you win, lose or draw, especially when you wear your international jersey, and we want to win the game on Monday if we can."
Pearce was quick to refute suggestions that England might take things easy now they've qualified for the knock-out stages.
"The boys that featured tonight are out there on the pitch having a cool down, those that didn't are out there training, and for me, when you're involved in these tournaments if you take your foot off the gas for one moment, it's fatal. You never pick the tempo up again; I've seen it many times before. It won't happen here.''
The Spanish coach Juan Ramon Lopez Caro felt his team lost concentration at vital times, and that the English took full advantage.
''I think we started well, we had quite a lot of chances but we didn't take them,'' the Spanish coach told journalists. ''Then there were mistakes and England took advantage."
Spain's sporting director Fernando Hierro had described the European Under-21 championships as more important than the Confederations Cup, in which the Spanish senior side are currently competing in South Africa.
"We are playing in the most important final tournament in football at the moment, one year before the senior team's challenge," he said. "It's the film we want to star in."
Torturing that metaphor to death is a tempting prospect in the wake of Spain's defeat, as their hopes of qualifying for the second round now depend on England beating Germany on Monday.
Spanish keeper Sergio Ansejo looked a film star possibility after his Hollywood-worthy penalty save from James Milner; the Aston Villa midfielder was brought down by Javi Garcia and took the penalty himself, but Asenjo dived the right way and saved low to his right.
Earlier in the day Germany had eliminated Finland from the competition with a clinical 2-0 victory in Halmstad. The Germans had gone ahead through a Benedikt H÷wedes header after Finland had enjoyed a lot of possession without threatening too much. Ashkan Dejagah added a second two minutes later as the Finns pushed forward.
''The goal was pivotal because as soon as we scored we were Germany again,'' said the German coach Horst Hrubesch. Those words will sound ominous to Pearce, a veteran of England's gut-wrenching knock-out round defeats in 1996 and 1990.
Maybe those defeats were in Pearce's mind when he was asked whether the tournament could be considered a success because England had reached the semi-finals.
''No, no. A million miles away from that. We've got a game on Monday night that I'm desperate to win. Every time England come up against Germany there's got to be a lot on it, always. It's a group match of a major tournament and a learning curve for the players. We know now at this stage that we've got at least one more game.
''I'll be at Italy-Sweden tomorrow, and my staff will be at the other game, and we know we've got to improve to get through the semi-final, but the dressing room are aware of that, not just me.''