National team football

England: Forget the seniors, watch the Under-21s

eden1England’s national team plays in Slovenia tonight in their latest European Championship Qualifying group game. It’s the weakest group in memory, so England should have no problem getting out of it, even with the mediocre selection on view. They are congratulating themselves on going unbeaten since the World Cup, a 10-game run that started with that oh-so-memorable 0-0 draw with the giants of Costa Rica in the final knockings of the Brazil 2014 debacle.

The story since then has been familiar. A season of flat-track-bullying Europe’s also-rans and some insomnia-curing friendlies. But, listen to England’s players and the script is also one you’ve heard before: “We’ve made great progress since the World Cup”. And following the tepid-beyond-belief draw with Ireland comments like, “we let ourselves down, we can do better”, are as hollow as a coconut. Who are they kidding – themselves, the fans, the media or their opponents?

Look at England’s run of glory since Brazil (with current FIFA rankings of countries) :

September 3 v Norway (64th) W 1-0
September 8 v Switzerland (11th) W 2-0
October 9 v San Marino (192nd) W 5-0
October 12 v Estonia (91st) W 1-0
November 15 v Slovenia (48th) W3-1
November 18 v Scotland (28th) W3-1
March 27 v Lithuania (96th) W 4-0
March 31 v Italy (13th) D 1-1
June 7 v Ireland (60th) D 0-0

The one result that stands out is the game in Switzerland. This win almost guaranteed that, barring a Krakota-type accident, England have already qualified for France 2016.

But it’s not all tedious. England’s Under-21 team is about to embark on its European Under-21 Championship campaign, and for once, there’s grounds for optimism.

England have some genuine firepower in their squad this time – Harry Kane of Spurs, Danny Ings [now] of Liverpool and Saido Berahino of West Brom. Between them, they scored 60 goals last season. If all three play, they could become a poor-man’s M-S-N!

It’s about time that England uprooted some trees in this competition. Although they reached the final in 2009, losing 4-0 to a German side that included Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Howedes, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mesut Ozil, since then their performances have been average. In 2011 and 2013, they failed to get out of the group stage in the finals and win a single game.

England’s showing in this competition is reflected in the declining quality of the senior side. England were champions in 1982 and 1984 and between 1978 and 1988, reached at least the semi-final stage.

Spain have won the past two tournaments, with the last one involving David de Gea, Koke, Thiago Alcantara, Alvaro Morata and Isco. Spain failed to qualify for 2015 after losing the play-off to Serbia.

England kick-off on June 18 against Portugal and then face Sweden and Italy. The other group comprises hosts Czech Republic, the Serbs and Germany. The final is in Prague on June 30.

Kane and Berahino may well see the competition as something of a shop window. Certainly there have been no shortage of suitors for the Tottenham striker, while Berahino has said he’s happy with the Baggies. But then, it was Newcastle that came calling!

Watch out for the England youngsters, they may pull off a surprise or two and restore some prestige to the national team camp.

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