Pearce: England Under-21s face real test of mettle
England Under-21 boss Stuart Pearce believes his side's European Championship play-off tie with Romania, starting with a sell-out first leg at Carrow Road tonight (7.30pm), could prove to be a knife-edge encounter.
The last time Pearce brought his young charges to Norwich, in 2007, they thrashed Slovakia 5-0 in a friendly.
But he expects no such cakewalk this evening as the two nations begin their battle for a place in next summer's finals in Denmark.
'I would say there is a 50-50 swing in this game. They've won their group, we've qualified as runners-up,' said Pearce.
'It would be physically impossible for us to be complacent in a game of this magnitude. We feel as though over two legs they are going to be two very difficult matches for us. I think they're one of the strongest sides in Europe, so we know we have our work cut out.'
Romania won eight of their 10 qualifying matches to pip Russia to top spot in their group.
'We haven't won our group, Greece won our group, we qualified as runners-up so it will be very tight two matches, I believe,' said Pearce.
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'I certainly don't feel as though there will be any favourites in this.
'They've kept eight clean sheets out of 10 in qualifying and the game they lost was, I think, a one-off. They ended up getting beaten 5-1 in Latvia, which was so left field as a result it was quite incredible. Technically they have some very good players.'
But the backing of a 25,000-plus full house should assist England in their task, and Pearce is not unduly concerned about playing at home first, with the second leg in Botosani next Tuesday.
He said: 'In the second leg it might be an away goals scenario in extra time, so that might just benefit the away team. It depends how this game pans out but nothing will be decided this evening, that's for sure. We know we have to do a professional job over two legs.
'Whichever team comes out of it on Tuesday as the victors will have gained greatly and advanced as a squad. The team that go out will probably feel themselves fairly unlucky, and a good side will have gone out that might possibly have had a tilt at the championship next summer.'
Pearce said his players were 'getting better and better by the game' – but knows this is their biggest test yet.
He said: 'I think we'll learn a great deal – how they handle the pressure of the play-off games and how they cope with the style of the opposition. That's the importance of international football.
'It's the nucleus of a good squad. What tends to happen if you get to major finals, the progression over the next eight months and the finals will push the players on that little bit further, if we're lucky enough to get there.
'You're probably judged on how many get through to the seniors. We've been fortunate over the last two years with Milner, Huddlestone, Agbonlahor, Walcott, Johnson, Hart – players that have come through the under-21 system and broken through. We have to make sure the next clutch of players push through as well.'
England have no fresh injury worries ahead of tonight's game.
'Everyone we have here is fully fit and available for selection,' said Pearce. 'We're short of Kieran Gibbs, Micah Richards and Alex Smithies from the original squad. But everyone who has had slight niggles this week has come through.'
Romania have two absentees – injured strikers Liviu Ganea and Mihai Costea.
The Canaries have provided Academy players to train with the England squad in the build-up to tonight's game, and the crowd was a big factor in the choice of venue.
'It was part of the reason we took the game to Norwich when we were hoping to be in the play-off. They've sold the stadium out for us, which is fantastic, and it will be a big game for the country at this level,' said Pearce.
'Norwich have supplied a team on two days to play against us in training and with the crowd turning up, the playing surface which is ideal for us, the travelling time – it's all fantastic.'
• Supporters are strongly advised to arrive in plenty of time to take their seats early to avoid potential congestion and delays at turnstiles. Fans are also reminded they must sit in the seats identified on their tickets.