Richards gets England off the mark

England 2-1 Finland
Micah Richards's second-half header decided the tournament's opening game as England's ten men resisted the Finnish challenge in Halmstad.

Richards gets England off the mark
Richards gets England off the mark ©

Micah Richards headed a second-half winner as ten-man England got the 2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championship under way with a 2-1 victory against Finland in Halmstad.

Early initiative
Finland showed no nerves on their first outing in a major final tournament and were unlucky to fall behind to Lee Cattermole's scuffed opener with 15 minutes played. The Nordic side drew level after 33 minutes when Tim Sparv – playing on home turf at Halmstads BK's Örjans vall – drilled in a penalty after Michael Mancienne had been dismissed for felling the muscular Berat Sadik. Richards had the last word eight minutes after the restart, however, to give England the early initiative in Group B.

An expectant crowd dominated by noisy Finns had plenty to enjoy in the first ten minutes as the team in blue set out to exploit the absence of the injured Nedum Onuoha at the heart of England's defence. Sadik's size and strength soon troubled Richards and Mancienne, the former having to react sharply to deflect a shot behind, before a hopeful punt from the Finnish half had the Chelsea FC defender and goalkeeper Joe Hart at sixes and sevens under pressure from the big No9.

Experience tells
Pearce was able to field a side boasting a combined 263 Premier League appearances last season between them, and that experience told as England scored from their first opportunity of note. A flighted pass down the left from James Milner was collected by Gabriel Agbonlahor, who outfoxed Jonas Portin before rolling a pass across the box for Cattermole to scuff in via the outstretched leg of left-back Jukka Raitala.

Converted penalty
Had a delightful Kieran Gibbs ball over the Finland rearguard not had too much pace for the speedy Agbonlahor, England would surely have gone 2-0 in front. Instead they found themselves a man down and with parity restored after Mancienne hauled down Sadik after misjudging the bounce of a ball under pressure from the DSC Arminia Bielefeld forward. Sparv dispatched the penalty with ease – his first goal at Örjans vall.

Milner influential
The subsequent England reshuffle may have left Milner at right-back – Martin Cranie moving into the centre – but it was by no means the end of the Aston Villa FC midfielder, who was earning a record 43rd cap at this level, as an attacking force. With 52 minutes played, he curled a free-kick towards the top corner which Anssi Jaakkola tipped over. He then delivered the ensuing corner between two Finns for Richards to rise and nod in the second.

Late action
From then on England looked comfortable until a frenetic finale in which Portin flicked a header into the side-netting and Hart made routine saves from Jussi Vasara, fellow substitute Teemu Pukki and centre-back Tuomo Turunen. Finland must now regroup before they return to Halmstad on Thursday to face Germany, when England tackle Spain in Gothenburg.