By William Wood | In UEFA European Under-21 Championship
In an enthralling Under-21 European Championship semi-final, England cruised to a 3-0 first-half lead, opponents Sweden hauled them back to level the match before the Three Lions held their nerve to win the penalty shoot-out 5-4, with Micah playing the full 120 minutes.
England have fallen at the semi-final stage of this tournament five times, including against Holland two years ago, but they were handed a dream start courtesy of Martin Cranie’s opener within the first minute.
The youngster latched on to a loose ball from an England corner and blasted the ball through the crowd and into the back of the net to silence the vocal home support, though Ola Toivonen’s free-kick from 25-yards threatened to cut short the celebrations as Joe Hart dived to make the save.
Despite the positive start Stuart Pearce was dealt a major blow as Gabriel Agbonlahor was booked for a challenge on Mattias Bjarsmyr, ruling him out of the final, but England doubled their advantage minutes later through Micah’s Manchester City teammate Nedum Onouha.
Sweden were looking vulnerable from set-pieces and James Milner’s floated ball was allowed to linger in the box, with Onouha forcing his body round the ball and driving it home from eight yards out.
The home side were not playing particularly poorly given the score-line, but they were well and truly on the rocks every time England won a corner, and there was further cause for celebration among the Three Lions ranks as the side seemingly put the game to bed.
Goalkeeper Johann Dahlin struggled to clear another corner from under his own crossbar, and as Lee Cattermole steered the ball back towards danger Mattias Bjarsmyr directed the ball into the back of his own goal.
England could not have dreamed for a better first-half, Cattermole himself going close to adding a fourth with a shot from 20-yards, and as the sides went off for the interval it appeared to be a case of how many more England would score having booked their place in their final.
However, if one adage should stick it is that football is a game of two halves, and everything that went right for England appeared to go wrong for them in the second 45 minutes.
The first 20 minutes after the break went according to script for Pearce’s men, Theo Walcott continuing to probe while the England backline looked solid, but then everything began to crumble as Sweden found new confidence.
Guillermo Molins evaded the challenge of Keiron Gibbs before finding Marcus Berg who stroked the ball home to peg one back for the Swedes, and suddenly the crowd found their voice once again, especially as Mikael Lustig went close to adding a quick-fire second.
As time continued to tick away, Sweden did manage to grab another to usurp England, Toivonen picking himself up after a foul and delightfully curling round the wall and into the back of the net.
As England seemingly toiled in the heat their worst nightmare was realised, Sweden drawing level as the Three Lions struggled to compose themselves and Berg – who had sprung to life – flicking the ball beyond Hart after some fine build up play.
As the game entered extra-time, there appeared to be only one side who were going to win it, Sweden continuing to dominate in defence and midfield as England’s front-line waivered.
And their problems were confounded by Fraizer Campbell, the young striker sliding in on Mikael Lustig and picking up his second yellow, reducing England to ten-men when they were already out on their feet with 11.
Berg went close to completing his hat-trick in the second-half of extra time though his header flew just over, and as it was the result was to be decided on penalties, with Pearce himself well versed in the negative fate that such outcomes always seem to bring England.
The curse of penalties that afflicts the Three Lions appeared to be alive and well as James Milner slipped and skied the first, though parity was restored soon after when goal-hero Berg’s effort was saved by Hart’s legs.
And the other penalty takers held their nerve to send England through via the unlikely route of spot-kicks, a result that will erase the memory of how England came so close to capitulating completely having assumed a seemingly imperious position in the first half.
After such a tiring match, Micah reserved a few words exclusively for MicahRichards.com, saying:
“We’re through and that’s the main thing. Obviously we were in control in the first-half and we were disappointed to let them back in it, but we held our nerve in the shoot-out and can now look forward to the final.”
Pearce must, however, go into the final without Hart, who was booked during the shoot-out, as well as Agbonlahor and Campbell.