The Czech Republic sealed a last-four spot in dramatic fashion as substitutes Jan Chramosta and Tomáš Pekhart struck late on to deny an England side who looked set for progress themselves.
The Czech Republic produced a dramatic late comeback to book their semi-final berth and point England to the exit door with two goals in the dying minutes in Viborg from substitutes Jan Chramosta and Tomáš Pekhart.
England appeared set for a third successive Under-21 semi-final when Daniel Welbeck headed them in front after 76 minutes, but the Czechs tore up that script as first Chramosta fired them level a minute from the end, and then Pekhart sealed a remarkable turnaround in added time.
The Czechs duly finished second in Group B with six points, one behind Spain, and will face Group A winners Switzerland in Herning on Wednesday night. As for England, Stuart Pearce’s youngsters will head home reflecting on how victory, and progress, was snatched from their hands.
Defeat was a bitter blow for an England side who had largely shaded the contest and looked to have done enough. Having played out wide against Ukraine, Daniel Sturridge was back in a central position alongside Welbeck and both threatened early on. Sturridge – England’s most consistent attacker in Jutland – found the net after eight minutes but was adjudged offside. He then played in Welbeck to test Tomáš Vaclík with a rising shot.
At the other end, Czech coach Jakub Dovalil had reverted to a lone striker in Libor Kozák – replacing Pekhart – after his unhappy experiment with two up top against Spain. His team needed only a point but after a quiet start they would have gone in front after 17 minutes but for a flying save by Frank Fielding to keep out Lukáš Mareček’s volley. Now Czech tails were up and England were fortunate that Marcel Gecov produced an air kick when full-back Jan Lecjaks played a low ball invitingly across goal.
It was England who finished the half stronger, however, and both of Pearce’s wingers went close. First Tom Cleverley, recalled after missing the Ukraine stalemate, drove a far-post cross by Ryan Bertrand into the side netting. Then Scott Sinclair, looking lively on his first start of the tournament, almost capped a spell of England keep-ball with a goal, cutting in front the left and drawing a fingertip save from Vaclík.
The Belarus squad were watching on among the 5,262 crowd in Viborg but by half-time it seemed inevitable they would not be facing either of these teams in the semi-finals with Spain leading Ukraine and set to finish top.
The Czechs remained on course to join them in the last four as England struggled to make inroads into the meanest defence in qualifying. But with 14 minutes remaining they got their goal as Sturridge crossed for Welbeck to bury a header.
Sturridge might have added a second but was thwarted by Vaclík and instead the Czechs struck back through their twin substitutes. Gecov’s low cross took a slight deflection off Welbeck and the ball landed invitingly at the feet of Chramosta who made no mistake. That was enough for the Czechs but with England pushing at the other end, they salted the wound with a second on the counter, Chramosta breaking down the right and teeing up Pekhart.
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