England 1:2 Czech Republic
Welbeck 76′, Pekhart 89′, Chramosta 94′.
England produced their best performance of the tournament but crashed out of the European Under-21 Championship after conceding two late-late goals in Viborg.
Stuart Pearce’s men appeared to have earned their passage after a Danny Welbeck header with a quarter of an hour to go repaid their Togel Hongkong superiority in the second half, but their defence, of all things, slipped up with 89 minutes on the clock to allow a killer equaliser for the Czech Republic.
As the white shirts pushed up in desperate hope during stoppage time, the Czechs added a breakaway second to confirm a night of misery for England and a remarkable turnaround.
Both teams had made three changes to their previous starting lineups.
For England, the much-criticised Michael Mancienne made way at defensive midfield for the more muscular Fabrice Muamba, while Jack Rodwell and Danny Rose, who both disappointed against Ukraine, were on the bench, replaced by Tom Cleverley and Scott Sinclair in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Welbeck and Dean Sturridge the alternating points of attack.
The Czechs also make three switches in a 4-1-4-1 shape with Jan Moravek and Lukas Marecek in midfield tandem in place of Lukas Vacha and Adam Hlousek, while Libor Kozak replaced Tomas Pekhart at centre-forward.
Both sides had four men on yellow-cards in danger of missing the semi-final, yet both started brightly, knowing only a win would suffice. Tomas Vaclik’s gloves were the first to be dirtied, comfortably palming away a Welbeck effort from a tight angle in the tenth minute.
But the Czechs carved out the first clear chance, when Marecek pulled the trigger from ten yards in the 17th minute, only to see Frankie Fielding’s quick reflexes tip it away from a certain goal. Was luck on England’s side?
Scott Sinclair was forging buccaneering runs up the left flank, careering past Czech defenders, but it was the central Europeans’ darting through the middle which looked more likely to produce a goal.
Finally some interplay from England with a multi-pass move in the 27th minute ending with Tom Cleverley volleying into the side-netting from a Ryan Bertrand cross. Maybe Pearce had read Kierkegaard after all.
Chris Smalling’s exquisite dummy on the half hour mark sent two Czechs chasing shadows, as England appeared to be on the threshold of either a surprising win or yet another disappointing draw or loss.
Four minutes before the break, another of Sinclair’s high-speed runs almost yielded a goal as the Swansea attacker cut in from the left and rifled a foot over the bar. England looked, dare we say it, almost comfortable, while the Czechs seemed to have taken their foot off the accelerator after half an hour’s power play.
0-0 at the half but both coaches Pearce and Jakub Dovalil went in painfully aware that Denmark had dominated for 45 minutes on Saturday before ending up defeated and eliminated.
The Viborg stadium was enshrouded in a cloud of drizzle at the interval but the expected downpour did not follow and the pitch was not as slippery as might have been feared.
It took England a quarter of an hour to resume their green shoots of the first half but a nice spell of possession (yes from England!) emerged just short of the hour mark, with Sturridge finding space on the right and Cleverley swivelling and shooting over the bar.
Pearce swapped Jordan Henderson for Henri Lansbury in the 63rd, with less than half an hour to snatch that vital, and increasingly deserved, goal.
If there were inspiration waiting, it looked like coming from Sturridge, whose footballing brain stood out. In the 71st minute he almost chipped the goalkeeper from the touchline 30 yards away, his set-piece landing on the roof of the net.
Pearce consulted his pack again and played a new card for the first time in Denmark: Marc Albrighton, but before the Aston Villa winger could enter the fray, England struck gold.
Sturridge swung in a cross from the right and Welbeck, racing into the area, met it perfectly with a glancing header past the despairing Vaclik. A breakthrough at last. Lansbury’s drive three minutes later whistled inches past the post as English confidence was in the ascendancy.
Eight minutes remaining and Sturridge again the instigator, driving into the box from the right and causing momentary panic as Vaclik failed to hold onto his shot.
With the anxiety on Czech minds, a double substitution: Jan Chramosta replaced Moravek and the qualifiers’ top-gunner Tomas Pekhart came on for the ponderous Kozak. Milan Cerny glanced a header wide in the 83rd to remind England not to celebrate yet, but the night looked increasingly to belong to the Northern Europeans.
With English minds turning to Switzerland and the semi-finals, disaster struck in the 90th minute. Marcel Gecov’s cross from the right deflected off Welbeck and fell invitingly for Chramosta to stick out a boot just ahead of Smalling and lift the ball over Fielding. Kyle Walker hugged the net disconsolate.
Now it was the Czechs’ turn to keep ball. When Sturridge went down under a tackle it looked for a moment that England had won a penalty but the linesman’s flag was up for offside instead.
The hourglass was almost overturned; suddenly time had run out for England. As the white shirts made one last raid upfield and Fielding advanced, the Czechs won possession and charged back the other way. Chramosta the goalscorer turned provider to centre for Pekhart to tap into an empty net and knock England out.
In the other game in Herning, Spain beat Ukraine 3-0 through a Juan Mata brace and a a strike from Adrian. England and Ukraine are on the next flight home while the semi-final lineup pits the Swiss against the Czechs and Spain against Belarus.
England’s elimination also means there will be a play-off to determine the third qualifier for the London 2012 Olympic Games from the losing semi-finalists. England U21, with Pearce at the helm, is expected to represent Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
England (4-2-3-1): Frank Fielding, Ryan Bertrand, Fabrice Muamba, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Jordan Henderson (Henri Lansbury 63′), Danny Welbeck, Daniel Sturridge, Scott Sinclair (Danny Rose 87′), Kyle Walker, Tom Cleverley (Marc Albrighton 76′).
Czech Republic (4-1-4-1): Tomas Vaclik, Jan Lecjaks, Ondrej Mazuch, Ondrej Celustka, Borek Dockal, Libor Kozak (Tomas Pekhart), Jan Moravek (Jan Chramosta), Jan Kovarik (Milan Cerny 67′), Marcel Gecov, Marek Suchy, Lukas Marecek
Att: 5, 262
Group B Final positions
Q- Spain 7pts
Q- Czech Republic 6pts
(c) Sean O’Conor & Soccerphile, Viborg, Denmark.