Stuart Pearce’s young Lions tonight gave Carrow Road fans a rare taste victory as they overcame their Serbian counterparts’ with the narrowest of victories in the first leg of their European Championship play-off.
Armed with a hard-earned, but slender, 1-0 lead they will take their place alongside the European Under-21 elite in Israel next June if they can avoid defeat in Krusevac, Southern Serbia, next Tuesday.
In front of a lively crowd of 17,266, the young England side did more than enough to earn themselves a lead at what is really half-time in the tie. The goal, a 65th minute penalty from West Brom’s Craig Dawson, was no more than they deserved, but they may be left to rue a string of missed chances.
With the Serbians seemingly intent on leaving these shores with the game still in the balance, they will consider it a job fairly well done. The young Englishmen will undoubtedly face a very different proposition in Eastern Europe, where the hosts will me more attack-minded and the crowd more hostile and intimidating.
An attacking looking England side – lining up in a 4-2-3-1 – made a very bright start, and had the Serbians on the back foot early on.
The pace and movement of Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling and Blackpool’s Thomas Ince caused numerous problems for the visitor’s back-four, although the early goal that Pearce would have liked remained elusive.
The same two players combined to create England’s best chance of the half when Ince’s perfectly timed run was picked out by an exquisite through ball by Sterling, but the son of England legend Paul Ince was guilty of a heavy first touch that allowed the keeper to save.
After surviving a rocky opening the visitors did eventually get a foothold in the game and displayed some of the technical capabilities for which the Eastern Europeans are renowned – but without ever really threatening Jack Butland’s goal.
England, for their part, also did a decent job of retaining possession of the ball – a rarity for those in white shirts – and after a lull the game exploded into life at the game approached half-time. First of all, Ince – cutting in from the right – unleashed a screaming left-footed strike that whistled past the post and was shortly followed by Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson – skipper for the night – firing one past the other upright.
So, no goals, but at least the late flurry would have softened the manager’s half-time team talk.
Manchester United’s Jack Rodwell failed to reappear for the second half – those fragile hamstrings again letting him down – and was replaced by Blackburn’s Jason Lowe, who lined up alongside Henderson in England’s central midfield.
The second period followed a similar pattern to the first with England being quick out of the blocks, but failing to capitalise.
Crystal Palace’s Wilfred Saha was twice guilty of spurning good chances, with the trickery and flair of Ince and Sterling continuing to create openings. Bolton’s Marvin Sordell – playing as the lone striker – while not lacking in work rate or effort, was unable to trouble the Serbian central defenders in a way that his manager would have liked.
He was eventually replaced by ex-Ipswich striker, Connor Wickham – but not before England had given themselves a priceless lead.
On 65 minutes an excellent overlapping run by Tottenham right-back, Adam Smith appeared to have fizzled out with his cross being blocked off at the near post, but his tenacity to retrieve possession ended with his heels being clipped just inside the box.
Despite Serbian protestations, a penalty was awarded and up stepped central defender, Dawson – off the back of five goals scored in the qualifying group – to fire home with great aplomb.
The goal was no more than England deserved and it brought about the evening’s first essence of smile on the face of Pearce. It didn’t last long, but was evidence of a manager content with what he was watching.
Andros Townsend replaced Sterling late on and produced a fine cameo performance down the left side.
Further neat interplay threatened to create a second goal – one that would have taken the tie away from the Serbians – but despite Caulker and Ince both going close late on the game ended 1-0.
As an occasion, the folk of Norfolk again did the country proud and it speaks volumes for Norwich City FC that the FA sees Carrow Road as its ‘go to’ venue when a win – and some passionate support – is required.
In terms of England’s next crop… the jury is still out. There were several good performances for sure, but the critical factor remains how to turn a good under-21 player into a good international.
With John Terry and Ashley Cole either retiring – or doing their best to retire – from international football the performances of Steven Caulker and Danny Rose were both worthy of note. Whilst both will clearly have to wait their turn – there are others ahead of them in the queue – they showed sufficient quality to ensure they will be knocking on Roy Hodgson’s door one day soon. Dawson too looked a composed defender, with the added bonus that he knows how to take a penalty.
The attackers – I’ve already mentioned Ince, Sterling and Townsend – may also, in the future, enter the thoughts of Hodgson. Given that their third of the pitch is where games are won and lost – and creativity is in very short supply in the senior squad right now – the chance is theirs to take. With Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain showing that age is no barrier, we may not have seen the last of an Ince in a full England shirt.
The only possible disappointment for the home crowd was the non-appearance of City duo Declan Rudd and Ryan Bennett. Whilst Bennett at least made the bench, Rudd was not included in the squad and presumably watched from the familiar surroundings of the Carrow Road stands.
We shouldn’t be surprised – old ‘Psycho’ was never big on sentiment…