England goalkeeper Scott Loach put in an inspired display as Stuart Pearce's side earned a creditable draw against early pacesetters Greece in their European Championship Group Nine qualifier in Tripoli.
• Pearce praises goalkeeper Loach
Daniel Sturridge gave England an early lead after a confident start before his
effort was cancelled out by Sotiris Ninis' deflected strike five minutes before
Loach then made a string of fine saves to keep out a profligate Greek attack
lead by Kostas Mitroglou and earn a point at the Asteras Tripolis Stadium.
The result means England, beaten 4-0 by Germany in the 2009 finals in June,
move up to second in the section - three points behind leaders Greece - having
taken four points from their two matches by beating Macedonia 2-1 last Friday
with Portugal third with three points from their one match played.
England began strongly with 17-year-old Jack Wilshere handed his first start,
and the visitors should have been ahead after just three minutes when
Sturridge's curling free-kick cracked off the left upright, with James Tomkins
blazing the rebound over the crossbar.
The visitors continued to press and they were rewarded with the opening goal
two minutes later.
Danny Rose was the architect, intercepting Vasilis Pliatsikas' wayward pass and
then turning Kyriakos Papadopoulos before sliding in a low centre which
Sturridge gleefully tapped home from close range.
It took Greece 22 minutes to fashion an opening with Olympiacos striker
Mitroglou drawing a fine save from Loach with a low snapshot. Loach was called
into action again two minutes later, denying Ninis with a brilliant fingertip
Sturridge was forced off with what looked like an ankle problem shortly
afterwards, with Manchester United's Danny Welbeck replacing the goalscorer.
The visitors enjoyed more of the game as the half wore on though, and they
levelled five minutes before half-time through good fortune, Arsenal's Kieran
Gibbs deflecting Ninis' speculative shot past a helpless Loach after 40
England could then have fallen 2-1 behind on the stroke of half-time, but Loach
made a superb point-blank save from Dimitris Siovas' header.
Rose wasted England's best chance of the second half, firing wide of the left
upright after playing a neat one-two with Jack Rodwell.
Mitroglou was guilty of passing up a golden chance when he intercepted Tomkins'
poor pass and advanced on goal, only to be denied by Loach's sprawling save.
The Watford goalkeeper made yet another fine stop four minutes from time, from
another Ninis long range effort.
Mitroglou then should have won the match for Greece with two minutes when Loach
was finally beaten. The Olympiakos striker rounded the keeper - but hit the
sidenetting with the goal gaping.
Pearce praises goalkeeper Loach
England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce heaped praise on goalkeeper Scott Loach.
"I thought our goalkeeper Scott Loach was outstanding,'' said Pearce
afterwards. "For me he was by far the man of the match. I chose him rather than our two other goalkeepers because he's seen plenty of action from his loan spells and he is now a regular with his club so is more
experienced. I thought Jack Wilshere was also outstanding.
"The draw was a fair result I think as while we had the best chances in the
first half I thought Greece then had the best opportunities in the second 45
minutes,'' Pearce said.
"It concerns me that most Greek chances came from defensive errors on our part
but I reckon that these errors are easier to correct than technical errors so
I'm not too disappointed. Greece are a very organised team and they gave us a very hard game.''
Pearce's opposite number Nikolaos Nioplias said: "I had told everybody before
this match that we were in for a very good game because I know our team and I
know how England play and I think this was proved correct.
"England got off to a flying start and the first 15 minutes belonged to them.
We managed to balance things out midway through the half though and we created a
number of good chances.
"In the second half I thought we had much better chances, the English were a
little better in possession. But generally I am disappointed we didn't convert
more of our opportunities.
"It was a very good game against very good opponents and I hope we can improve
in the games which follow, and by that I mean playing better as a team, because
in terms of quality and skill I think we are at a very high level.''