Thursday, October 7, 2010
Young Lions face tricky Romania test
Following the debacle that was England's World Cup campaign, intense focus was trained on the country's future prospects. Though the senior side have regrouped under Fabio Capello in the early stages of Euro 2012 qualifying, staving off fears of imminent apocalypse, the development of youth is still very much a priority in light of the failure of the so-called 'Golden Generation'. Friday's European Under-21 Championship play-off first leg against Romania will give some indication as to the ultimate potential of Stuart Pearce's current crop of kids.
Of course, one player already bridges the gap between future and present. Arsenal's Jack Wilshere will feature when Romania visit Norwich's Carrow Road for the first leg on Friday night, but the talented midfielder, still just 18, will then be whisked off for senior duty ahead of Tuesday's Euro 2012 qualifier against Montenegro and will not play in next week's return leg. Arsene Wenger was not amused to see his player placed with a double burden and Pearce is under pressure to ensure Wilshere's trip to Norwich is a productive one.
Certainly Pearce will know that a victory in the home leg is likely to be essential to his side's hopes of reaching the finals in Denmark. England finished second to Greece in Group 9 and only secured their place in the qualifying play-off as one of the best runners-up. Romania were far more impressive as they beat Russia into top spot in Group 1, winning all five games at home and losing just once on their travels. While Romania have not reached the finals since hosting the competition in 1998, and have not even contested a play-off since 2001, their form in qualification comes as real comfort.
Pearce's men possess the recent pedigree, having reached the final of the 2009 competition only to be outclassed by a Germany side featuring Mesut Ozil and Sami Khedira - a familiar scenario to followers of England. Pearce will be without Manchester City defender Micah Richards, Arsenal full-back Kieran Gibbs and Huddersfield goalkeeper Alex Smithies due to injury, and has called up City's 20-year-old defender Kieran Trippier to strengthen his options.
England player to watch: Daniel Sturridge. The absence of Newcastle's Andy Carroll from the squad - which led many to conclude, falsely, that he would be representing the senior side - has left a hole in Pearce's attack which may be filled by the Chelsea striker. Sturridge has scored two goals in eight Under-21 games and though he is yet to set his club career alight having made only two Premier League starts since his move from Manchester City in 2009, he is quick, finishes well and has plenty of confidence.
Romania player to watch: Raul Rusescu. With strikers Liviu Ganea and Mihai Costea both injured, coach Emil Sandoi's attacking options are limited. However, he can call on Unirea Urziceni star Raul Rusescu. At the age of 22 he only just qualifies for the squad and boasts plenty of experience compared to his team-mates. Rusescu is a rare veteran of the Unirea side that won the Romanian title under Dan Petrescu in 2009 and has played in both the Champions League and the Europa League.
Key battle: Fabrice Muamba v Eric Bicfalvi. With 26 caps to his name, Muamba is the most experienced member of Pearce's squad and he will patrol the midfield with all the commitment and quiet menace he displays for Bolton. Coming firmly onto his radar will be Bicfalvi, another 22-year-old in the Romania side. The midfielder shares a birthday with none other than legendary Romanian Gheorghe Hagi and was born in 1988 - a year when the great man was running riot at Steaua Bucharest, Bicfalvi's current club. He started in the Europa League defeat at Liverpool last month and has demonstrated some aptitude for the playmaker's art, contributing two goals and one assist during the qualifying campaign.
Trivia: England Under-21s' most recent victory at Carrow Road came in 2007 when they beat Slovakia 5-0 to reach the finals of that year.
Stats: England have lost just once in ten games since their 4-0 defeat to Germany in the final of the 2009 tournament - a 2-1 defeat to Greece in a qualifier in March.
Odds: England (1.44), the draw (4.00) and Romania (6.50) are available at Bet 365. England HT/draw FT is attractive at 19.00.
Prediction: England finished the qualifying campaign strongly with three successive victories and should secure a narrow win against a promising Romania side at Carrow Road.