England U21 2 Finland U21 1: Pearce rescued by mighty Micah in opener
16 June 2009 07:30
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No fuss. Simple efficiency. That's the Scandinavian way. England? Not a bit of it. Stuart Pearce's team clung on to these three precious points with their fingernails, playing for more than an hour with 10 men after Michael Mancienne was sent off.
Lee Cattermole put them ahead but Mancienne was shown a red card after conceding a penalty, which Finland's captain Tim Sparv scored to level.
Micah Richards grabbed England's winner in the 53rd minute before limping off with a knee injury and Pearce already has a mini-crisis looming in central defence.
Mancienne is banned against Spain on Thursday and Nedum Onuoha missed last night's game with a groin strain. James Milner picked up a thigh strain while Theo Walcott failed to sparkle and was replaced at half-time by Fraizer Campbell.
'It was a bold call,' said boss Pearce, who insisted Walcott was not injured.
'You have to go with your gut feeling. It would have been easy to go 4-4-1 but I felt we could trouble them with the pace of Gabby Agbonlahor and Campbell and we needed a solid three behind them.'
Pearce's decision to reject the chance to train at the humble Halmstad stadium before the game looked questionable on a slow surface where meaty passes were held up on the turf.
Finland's Jonas Portin was confused by a long ball from Milner in the 15th minute and allowed Agbonlahor to muscle him off the ball. The Villa man was composed enough to roll a pass square for Cattermole and he found the net. Sparv, a former team-mate and flat-mate of Walcott and Martin Cranie from their days in Southampton's youth team, had no problems with the pace of the pitch.
The unfeasibly slim midfielder, who plays here for Halmstad, dominated the opening exchanges but Cattermole's goal deflated the Finns and subdued their noisy supporters.
It seemed the hard part was done for England. At least until the half-hour, when another probing pass from Sparv spun away from Mancienne and let in striker Berat Sadik.
Anxious to recover, Mancienne grabbed Sadik, who collapsed to the turf. It was beginning to look like a signature move from the centre forward.
He had tried it earlier, unsuccessfully, as he tussled for a loose ball with Kieran Gibbs but this time the Turkish referee Cuneyt Cakir was right to award the penalty and send off Mancienne.
'I've absolutely no complaints,' said Pearce, but with Frank Arnesen, Chelsea's chief scout and director of youth development looking on from the stands before reporting back, it was not the best way for Mancienne to impress his new club manager Carlo Ancelotti.
Sparv converted coolly from the spot and the whole Finland team, apart from the goalkeeper, disappeared into the crowd to celebrate their first goal in the finals of a major football tournament.
In a perverse way, the setback galvanised England. Full back Cranie was excellent when he switched into central defence and the tireless Milner moved to right back in the reshuffle but was still able to influence the game.
It was his free-kick, eight minutes after the break, which was tipped around the post and his corner kick which Richards headed into the net, seconds later, leaping above Sparv to make a powerful connection.
England then set about defending the lead but the Finns gave them a late fright. Jussi Vasara was just wide with a diving header and Joe Hart saved twice in quick succession from Teemu Pukki.
Perparim Hetemaj was only a foot too high from the edge of the penalty area and Hart, booked for time -wasting in the closing minutes, needed two attempts to claim a skiddy 30-yarder from defender Portin.
Throw in a couple of streakers and those who assumed nothing could match the drama of the European U21 Championship in Holland two years ago were thinking again.
ENGLAND (4-1-4-1): Hart 6; Cranie 7, Richards 7 (Tomkins 88min), Mancienne 6, Gibbs 6; Muamba 7; Walcott 5 (Campbell 46, 6) Cattermole 7, Noble 6, Milner 8; Agbonlahor 6 (Rodwell 85).
Booked: Agbonlahor, Hart.
Sent off: Mancienne.
FINLAND (4-2-3-1): Jaakkola 6; Aho 6, Portin 5, Turunen 6, Raitala 7; M Hetemaj 7 (Hakola 85), Sparv 7; Hamalainen 6 (Vasara 80), Parikka 5 (Pukki 65, 6), P Hetemaj 6; Sadik 7.
Man of the match: James Milner.
Referee: Cuneyt Cakir (Turkey).
'Our performance certainly wasn't good enough to win this tournament,' admitted Pearce.
'But the character we showed was commendable. We were flat to the boards after going down to 10 men, which was our own fault.'
England's players punched the air with relief at the sound of the final whistle.
They may have started with the win Pearce demanded but must improve quickly.
Far tougher tests await, starting with Spain.