England arrive at the UEFA European Under-21 Championships on the back of a phenomenal set of results that has seen them win nine consecutive matches without conceding a goal, yet Stuart Pearce’s side have their work cut out to begin their campaign in Israel with a win against a talented Italian side. Having come through an infamous playoff against Serbia, England have reached their fourth successive tournament under Pearce but are looking to lift the trophy for the first time since 1984.
“When we start our journey every two years we sit our players down and talk about winning the tournament,” Pearce said, according to the English Football Association’s website. “We’re here to win and I’ll be disappointed if the seven other teams didn’t have the same objective. In my time in charge at four tournaments, France haven’t got here once, and they are a major side, so to get here and be a part of this fantastic tournament is a success in itself.”
As ever, the tournament is about as much developing players for the senior side as it is lifting the trophy. England’s opening match comes on a day where it was revealed that the playing time of English under-21s in the Premier League is at an all-time low. Yet, all-but five of Pearce’s squad have experience in England’s top flight.
While Wigan’s FA Cup winner Callum McManaman and Liverpool’s Raheem Sterling miss out through injury, new Manchester Unite signing Wilfried Zaha is in Israel and with big expectations to provide the attacking spark. Also involved are Tottenham defender Steven Caulker and Liverpool midfield duo Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey.
That pair could face a recognizable face in the Italian lineup in Liverpool forward Fabio Borini. But the key for Devis Mangia’s side is likely to be the performances of attacking midfielder Lorenzo Insigne. Having broken through into a Napoli side that finished in second in Serie A this season, the 21-year-old has already appeared for the senior Italian side. Inisgne has been an injury doubt leading up to the first match but looks set to recover from a knee problem.
Another full international will be pulling the strings in midfield in Marco Verratti. The 20-year-old has impressed in his first season at Paris Saint-Germain and played a part in them reaching the last eight of the Champions League.
After failing to qualify for the last tournament in 2011, Italy made amends this time by beating Sweden in their playoff. The Azzurri are looking for their first title in nine years, having lifted the trophy five times between 1002 and 2004. The other two sides in Group A are Israel and Norway, who meet earlier in the day.
England U21 (probable)
D: Clyne, Caulker, Dawson, Rose
M: Henderson, Lowe
Zaha, Shelvey, Redmond
Italy U21 (probable)
D: Donati, Caldirola, Capuano, Biraghi
M: Marrone, Verratti, Florenzi
F: Destro, Gabbiadini
Prediction: England and Italy have certainly drawn the easier of the two groups and both should progress to the semifinals, regardless of the result between them. England should be solid defensively, but look light up front with just Connor Wickham, Marvin Sordell and Nathan Delfouneso to choose from. Much of their attacking impetus will need to come from Zaha, if passed fit, with Tom Ince suspended.
Italy are likely to control much of the possession with their superior midfield. With Verratti dictating the tempo and Insigne linking up with another full Italy international in Mattia Destro up front, Italy could have just enough to get an opening win.
England U21 1-2 Italy U21
Where to watch: The UEFA European Under-21 Championship Group A clash will kick-off from the Bloomfield Stadium in Tel Aviv at 2.30 p.m. ET. Coverage will be provided by ESPNU, with a live stream available on ESPN3.