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Conte culpable in uneven season

By ESPN Staff

Young Lions continue perfect start to qualifiers

Bulgaria U21 0-2 England U21

Tom Huddlestone and Mark Noble grabbed the goals in soggy Sofia as England Under-21s continued their perfect start to Euro 2009 qualification.

Huddlestone, returning from suspension, skidded a volley home for the opener before Noble showed composure in the slippery conditions to double the lead before the break.

• Pearce pleased with away win

Noble picked up his second booking in as many games to rule him out of the next qualifier, but coach Stuart Pearce can still reflect on maximum points from the tricky trip to the Balkans.

Montenegro were swept aside on Friday and there looked to be little danger of an upset at CSKA's stadium.

With four more qualifiers before the end of November, the path to Sweden could look clearer by Christmas.

There was confusion before the kick-off in the Bulgaria capital as some officials were under the impression the match was to be played behind closed doors.

Bulgaria had already served their punishment for crowd trouble in their last campaign and the match was open to the public - but there was only a tiny crowd at the Army Stadium.

Play was also punctuated by fussy referee Fredy Fautrel and thunderstorms.

England goalkeeper Joe Hart had dealt with a couple of long-range efforts easily but his opposite number was having problems, with the teeming rain having a part in the 25th-minute opener.

James Milner made tracks down the right before backheeling to Noble, who picked out Huddlestone on the edge of the area with his cross.

The Spurs midfielder clipped a volley first time and it skidded through Nikolay Mihaylov, the Liverpool goalkeeper currently on loan at FC Twente.

Mihaylov, whose father has earned the most caps for Bulgaria and is a cult hero from his time at Reading, looked suspect when the slippery ball was in his penalty area.

Bulgaria looked more comfortable going forward and Martin Crainie had to time a challenge to perfection in the area on Valeri Domovchiyski after Nikolay Dimitrov played him through following an exciting run.

Domovchiyski also shaved the post twice with efforts from the edge of the area, but England showed a more clinical edge to their finishing.

They doubled their lead in the 32nd minute after Gabriel Agbonlahor raced down the left.

The ball was eventually worked to Matt Derbyshire, who slipped Noble through to shimmy past Mihaylov and finish for his first Under-21 goal.

Mihaylov had to parry a Huddlestone free-kick to safety to keep the score down before the break and he also had to turn Derbyshire's diving header around the post.

Hart had to save a long-range effort from Domovchiyski early in the second period, while Theo Walcott went wide from a similar distance.

Noble picked up his yellow card for a foul on Atanas Kyrdov and will miss the next qualifier.

Fabrice Muamba then came on for Walcott to give the defence more protection from midfield.

Agbonlahor should have made it 3-0 when Milner played him through but Mihaylov saved well, then Derbyshire's impish chip lobbed wide.

Derbyshire had an effort blocked in the six-yard box, while Huddlestone went wide when he raced through in the final stages, and Luke Moore came on and had an effort saved.

Pearce will be with the senior squad tomorrow evening as Steve McClaren's men look to do the same as the weekend by winning the day after the youngsters.

  • Pearce pleased with away win

    England Under-21 boss Stuart Pearce returned home satisfied after watching his side extend their perfect start to Euro 2009 qualification with victory against Bulgaria in atrocious conditions.

    Tom Huddlestone and Mark Noble scored the goals in soggy Sofia, with Pearce likening the brutal thunderstorms to the summer floods near his Wiltshire home.

    'It was tough conditions and credit goes to the players,' said Pearce. 'We can play better than that but sometimes when you come to places like this it is about character over performances.'

    Pearce's side built on Friday's opening Group Three win, in Montenegro, to put themselves in command heading into their block of another four games before the end of November.

    'It was two difficult trips to Eastern Europe. The whole squad should be pleased with the eight days we were together,' he added.

    'They were new to each other and the conditions here were atrocious.'

    Huddlestone, returning from suspension, opened the scoring in the 25th minute after clipping Noble's cross home first time from around 25 yards.

    It was a strike his Tottenham team-mate Dimitar Berbatov, who was watching in the stands, would have been proud of although it skidded through Liverpool goalkeeper Nikolay Mihaylov.

    Mihaylov, whose father Borislav is a Reading cult hero, was beaten again seven minutes later when Matt Derbyshire fed Noble, who danced around the goalkeeper and finished for his first Under-21 goal.

    'Our aim was to get on the plane with six points out of six,' Pearce added. 'We knew it would be difficult and the pointer to how well we've done will be dictated by how well the Portuguese and Irish do in these two venues.'

    The only negative part of the game was a booking for Noble, his second of the trip, which rules him out of the next qualifier.

    Pearce will now meet up with the senior squad and go to Wembley for the qualifier against Russia before having a discussion with Steve McClaren about the successful trip to the Balkans.

    Pearce also fielded cheeky questions from Bulgarian reporters asking whether he fancies McClaren's job, as well as the changes at Manchester City since his departure.

    The former City boss is hoping for a repeat of the weekend when the seniors followed up the under-21s with a victory the following day.

    Aside from a late equaliser from Japan in the women's game, it was a pleasing few days for England teams.

    'We want every level to be successful,' Pearce said. Pearce also feels his squad are starting to gel after losing more than half of his squad from the summer tournament in Holland when he guided them to the semi-finals.

    'I wanted six points and players ready to step up to the plate,' he said. 'I got that as well as the stalwarts from the last campaign. They've got a good spirit about them.'