European Under-21 Championships – Group A Focus: Strong start needed for Pearce

England head into the European Under-21 championships facing a tricky group to emerge out of – hosts Israel and a talented Italy side stand in the way of Stuart Pearce and his squad.

Pearce will take charge of England in the tournament for a fourth successive time, and boasts the likes of new Manchester United signing Wilfried Zaha , Tom Ince, and Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Jonjo Shelvey. Much will be expected of Zaha in particular, who proved to be Sir Alex Ferguson’s final signing, and performed well in the recent Championship play-off final.

This season’s FA Cup final man-of-the-match Callum McManaman is not available due to an ankle injury, and Pearce is also deprived of Raheem Sterling through a thigh problem. Yet the manager himself is confident in his own preparation for the championships compared to previous summers, telling the FA’s website: “If I roll the clock back and look at my preparation three tournaments ago, I was unsure in my own mind of what worked and what didn’t. I now know full well what is the right thing to do as I’ve seen the results of getting the balance between rest and focus.”

Pearce will be hoping that his side can go one better than their defeat to Germany in the final of 2009, and emulate England’s successes of 1982 and 1984. The Young Lions are in fine form at the moment, having won their last nine games without conceding a goal, but standing in their way in the opening round of fixtures will be Devis Mangia’s Italy.

The Azzurrini have included Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Marco Verratti, who will look to dictate play from the centre of the park. He will be blessed with a strike force to link up with that boasts highly-rated Mattia Destro of Roma, and Napoli’s diminutive striker Lorenzo Insigne. Mattia De Sciglio is another to watch out for, an exciting young full-back blessed with pace and confidence on the ball, and who is looking to establish himself in the Milan defence.

Hosts Israel will seek to capitalise on their opening fixture against Norway, the weakest of the three opposition they must face, in order to gain a footing for progression out of Group A. Fulham’s 19-year-old forward Omri Altman is the only player that must return to his homeland to compete this summer, with the rest of the squad made up of players based in Israel. Nir Biton, who had a trial at Manchester City last year, and made his full international debut over three years ago, will wear the captain’s armband.

Norway are taking part in their first European Under-21 Championships for 15 years, and go into the tournament as huge underdogs to get out of their group. A good start is imperative if they are to have any chance of causing an upset and progressing at the expense of the likes of England and Italy. The opening round of fixtures could be crucial in deciding the fate of all four countries, as a positive result would enhance the likelihood of progress a great deal.

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