England improve but do not progress

Fabrice Muamba, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck were all left to reflect on what might have been after England suffered an agonising late loss that ensured an early exit.

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England trio Fabrice Muamba, Chris Smalling and Danny Welbeck all struggled to comprehend how England's best performance in Group B ended up yielding a 2-1 defeat by Czech Republic and elimination from the UEFA European Under-21 Championship.

With a minute of normal time to play in Viborg, England were leading 1-0 and heading into the semi-finals along with pool winners Spain. The match, and the group, turned when Jan Chramosta scored a scruffy equaliser in the 89th minute, followed by a winner by fellow substitute Tomáš Pekhart with the final kick of the game.

Fabrice Muamba, who impressed as England's holding midfielder in his first start of the finals, said: "It's probably the best we played in the tournament, and to come up short with this result is very disappointing. It's quite hard to take, the manner in which we conceded the goals. When we scored the goal we were playing some flowing football [but] maybe we got a bit carried away instead of killing the game. You can see with the reactions of the boys, it is quite tough [to come to terms with it]."

Centre-back Smalling added: "Tonight we played really well, probably our best game. If we would have played like that in the last two games then we probably wouldn't have had any complaints that we didn't get the luck of the green. Tonight they got their luck with a ricochet, but fair play to them that they won the game and good luck in the rest of the tournament."

"I don't know how we're going out after that performance," added Welbeck, Smalling's Manchester United FC's team-mate and the man who looked like being England's hero after finishing a fine team move with a headed opener in the 76th minute. "All the lads have taken a hit and it's just a down feeling. We had the tactics right, keep the ball moving and hopefully wait for our chance – we took it, and were just unlucky to lose the game in the end."

Welbeck is one of ten players in Stuart Pearce's 22-man squad available to participate in qualifying for the 2013 finals in Israel, although Muamba has played his 34th and final game in an Under-21 career that started with a 1-1 draw against Romania in August 2007 and peaked with a final appearance two years ago, even if Germany did run out 4-0 winners in Malmo.

"It's been an emotional journey, but also a good journey and a good learning curve for us," said Muamba. "It's been an enjoyable tournament for me and I've enjoyed every single step of it. I won't be able to play in this tournament again, but I hope the best for the group and that they'll go to the next one."