Leighton Baines was the unlikely hero as England defeated Germany 1-0 in Coventry to make themselves favourites to progress to next summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship when this play-off concludes in Leverkusen on Tuesday.
It had looked for so long that a faultless display from goalkeeper Michael Rensing would enable Germany to leave the Ricoh Arena with a clean sheet, but the FC Bayern München custodian was finally beaten in the 77th minute as Wigan Athletic FC left-back Baines picked up the ball in space before picking his spot in the top corner with a delicious swerving shot from 25 metres. It sent a crowd of 30,919 – the largest in the city for 25 years – home happy, and set up the tie for a thrilling conclusion in four days’ time.
Germany had started with real patience, Eugen Polanski orchestrating a slick opening move which would have freed Stefan Kiessling had Steven Taylor not dispossessed the forward with a timely challenge on the edge of the area. Sadly for the visitors, a sixth-minute clash of heads involving defenders Markus Brzenska and Marvin Matip when each attempted to intercept a routine a through-ball was to prove indicative of an opening 45 minutes in which only the brilliance of Rensing prevented England from establishing an early advantage.
The 22-year-old got down smartly to hold a Tom Huddlestone drive in the ninth minute, and ten minutes later reacted well to divert a Wayne Routledge shot behind after the winger showed a deft touch to control a Baines cross and evade left-back Patrick Ochs in one movement. In between, England right-back Micah Richards headed a corner just wide and passed up another chance after failing to control the ball on his chest.
A speculative shot high into the stands from Kevin-Prince Boateng epitomised Germany's frustration as the speedy quartet of Theo Walcott, Wayne Routledge, James Milner and David Nugent continued to dictate the flow of the game. All were involved in a sweeping 29th-minute raid which concluded with Rensing turning behind a super Baines drive, and he was soon producing further heroics by acrobatically palming over Anton Ferdinand’s close-range header.
The Germany No1 was finally beaten in the 58th minute, only for his left-hand post to come to his rescue after Routledge unleashed a shot from 22 metres. Nigel Reo-Coker was the next to be denied by Rensing, who got down low to keep out a deflected shot from the England captain. Hunt, with a curled shot, and Dominik Reinhardt's header were the sum of Germany’s second-half efforts before the former was denied by Ferdinand’s sliding tackle in the 70th minute.
Rensing could do nothing to keep out Baines' brilliant winner seven minutes later, and Germany will have to up their game on home soil to retain a chance of qualifying for the Netherlands.