England U21 v Finland U21, European Under-21 Championship, June 15, 2009
The opening game of the European Under-21 Championships in Sweden pits Stuart Pearceâ€™s England side against a relatively unknown Finland side. The Three Lions must get a win if they are to go into further group games against Spain and Germany with a realistic chance of progressing from Group B.
Pearce, who has agreed a two-year extension as Under-21 boss, led England to the semi-finals of this competition two years ago, eventually losing to hosts Holland after an epic penalty shoot-out. Mark Noble, Nedum Onuoha, Joe Hart and James Milner remain from that team and they will all be eager to go one better in Sweden.
This England side has a familiar look and some players who could improve their reputations further over the coming weeks. Theo Walcott and Gabriel Agbonlahor (4/1 to be the first goalscorer) is as good a strike partnership as you could ask for and full-back Kieran Gibbsâ€™ performance last week against Azerbaijan had Arsenal and England fans purring.
Throw in further talents such as Michael Mancienne, Micah Richards, Adam Johnson, Jack Rodwell and Frazier Campbell and there is no getting away from the fact that these youngsters, with a heap of Premier League experience, should go far. (England are 7/2 to win the competition.) This tournament could also see the breakthrough of Hearts winger Andrew Driver who could well be playing Premier League football if he shows his SPL form when he gets his opportunity.
Some pundits have flagged up the lack of a playmaker in midfield, charging the Young Lions are having the same deficiencies which plague the senior squad in a major tournaments. But, Spain and Italy have shown in recent years that success at youth level is a gradual process and with the experience from Holland 2007, this side is rightly placed as one of the favourites.
The major warning for England comes from the fact that they drew their opening game 0-0 with the Czech Republic in 2007 and the Three Lions are traditionally slow starters in international competition. (The draw is 10/3.)
Finland also have some dangermen. Midfielder Tim Sparv (16/1 to be the first goalscorer) spent some time at Southampton and played in the same team as Theo Walcott. At 6.4ft, this attacking player will also feel he could make a name for himself having established himself at Halmstads in Sweden over the past few weeks. (Sparv takes penalties and could well be the opening scorer in this match.)
Teemu Pakki (12/1 to open the scoring) is another Finnish forward who could win you some money. The diminutive Sevilla striker has already played for the full national team and is an intelligent player who could float between Englandâ€™s defence and midfield and make life difficult for some of the household names of the Premier League.
With so many unknowns, some of these matches could be a little hard to predict, but this England side should be too strong for Finland with the Three Lions much more likely to come a cropper against the technical brilliance of Spain on Thursday night.