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England's participation in a major tournament ended with a familiar sense of anti-climax, as the country's Under-21 side suffered an early elimination from the European Championship last night.

England Cycle of Disappointment

Stuart Pearce's team had gone into the tournament confident of returning with the trophy and, despite drab draws in the opening group games against Spain and Ukraine, had seemed set to claim a place in the semi-final after Danny Welbeck had crowned an improved team display by heading a 76th-minute goal against the Czech Republic. However, England lost their composure and then their lead, with chaotic defending in the dying minutes allowing the Czechs to score twice and send England home with a 2-1 defeat.

Pearce, who is expected shortly to sign a two-year contract extension as Under-21 manager and who has expressed a desire to take charge of the Great Britain football team at next year's Olympics, paid tribute to his team for making it to the finals in the first place and regretted that they had been put into what he considered to be by far the more difficult group in the tournament.

He pointed out that Belarus, one of the countries who advanced from the other group, will contest a semi-final against the winners of England's group, Spain, despite losing two of their three games. What he did not point out, of course, was that Belarus, unlike England, at least won once. "Sometimes people don't realise how good the qualification campaign is and probably don't realise exactly the magnitude of the group we were put in," said Pearce. "If you look at the other group, teams came out of that having lost two matches, which tells you the draw might have lumped the best teams together. But that's tournament football."

Pearce accepted that his team did err, suggesting, in particular, that their failure to beat Ukraine in the second game, which ended in a dreary 0-0, was ultimately what cost them. Recognising the need to stimulate improvement after that display, Pearce made three changes to his line-up for the match with the Czech Republic and the irony is that, although that yielded their best performance of the tournament, it ended with the worst result.

England showed patience and, eventually, precision to put themselves in front but, when the hitherto conservative Czechs attacked in earnest, England's composure deserted them and they meekly surrendered their advantage. "We're disappointed," said Pearce. "Once you get your nose in front at that stage of the game you hope to see it out. Credit to the Czechs, they've been very strong in qualification and were very difficult and dogged to break down. We cut them open on several occasions but we didn't have the doggedness to see out the victory."

Few of England's players excelled overall. Phil Jones and Chris Smalling looked a promising partnership in central defence, and Daniel Sturridge, Scott Sinclair, Kyle Walker and Danny Welbeck flickered up front, but none made a truly compelling case for immediate parachuting into England's senior team. "I have to wait until the dust settles a bit and look at the players individually and see the scenario and report on it to Fabio [Capello]," Pearce said. The report is likely to say that England have power, diligence and broad competence but lack creativity – and intelligence under pressure.

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