England produced a nightmare last-gasp collapse tonight to lose to the Czech Republic and crash out of the 2011 European Under-21 Championships in Denmark.
In a game they needed to win, Stuart Pearce's youngsters looked set to do just that, as Danny Welbeck broke the deadlock just 14 minutes from time. However two last-gasp goals from Jan Chramosta and Tomas Pekhart ensured the Czech Republic progressed to the semi-finals at England's expense.
Coming into the game the Czechs knew a draw was all they needed to advance with Spain and they were clearly content to go through the motions.
England needed a dramatic improvement on their opening two draws against Spain and Ukraine to avoid crashing out of the competition, especially playing a side who had been unbeaten in qualifying.
England boss Stuart Pearce made three changes from the starting line-up that took to the field against the Ukraine last Wednesday. Captain Michael Mancienne was dropped in place of Fabrice Muamba, Tom Cleverley was prefered to Jack Rodwell and Scott Sinclair came in for Danny Rose. Phil Jones was handed the captain's armband in place of Mancienne.
One would have assumed a game of such simple importance, where only victory would be good enough would have seen England hit the ground running. But the opposite transpired and England were very apathetic in their display, showing little little urgency or passion.
The Czechs got off to the better start and in the 16th minute it took an acrobatic save by Frank Fielding from a Lukas Marecek volley to keep the game scoreless.
Tom Cleverley had England’s best chance of opening the scoring in the 29th minute. A surging run down the left by Ryan Betrand opened space to allow him to deliver a deep cross to the far post, but the Manchester United man volleyed the ball wide of the upright.
Neither side really imposed themselves for the remainder of the half until the 41st minute, when Scott Sinclair cut inside from the left and unleashed a blistering drive tipped over by Tomas Vaclik.
Sinclair had certainly brought something positive to England's attack, and three minutes from the break the Swansea man cut in off the left flank and forced Vaclik to push away another goal bound strike.
In the second half things were not improving for England. There was much huffing and puffing but what attempts there were on the Czech goal were from too far out to seriously worry their opponents.
Then in the 76th minute the deadlock was finally broken.
But the drama wasn't over. In the final minute of normal time Marcel Gecov was given too much time and space to deliver a cross that took a wicked deflection off Welbeck, allowing Chrasmosta to calmly lift the ball over Fielding for the equaliser, and break the hearts of England's Young Lions!
Moments later, with England having to send men forward in the vain hope of getting a winning goal, they were caught woefully short at the back. Chramosta broke the offside trap and unselfishly rolled a pass to his left for Pekhart, who stroked into the empty net from the edge of the area to put the result beyond doubt and send the Czechs into the last four of the tournament, and England home.
The Czech Republic will now face Switzerland and Spain play Belarus in the semi-finals on Wednesday.
Stuart Pearce's post-match comments: "I think us going home now is symptomatic of us not passing well enough in the first two matches, but I am proud of the players' endeavour. We just paid the price of switching off at a throw-in late on and that can happen to a team regardless of their age. My squad put their heart and soul into it and have been tremendously focused. I'm not interested in talking about players who aren't here, my thoughts are with the players who are suffering in the dressing room right now."
England's U21 team tonight:
Fielding, Walker, Bertrand, Smalling, Jones (c), Henderson (Lansbury '64), Muamba, Cleverley (Albrighton '77), Sinclair (Rose '87), Sturridge, Welbeck.
Subs: Mancienne, McCarthy, Albrighton, Rose, Tomkins, Rodwell, Cork, Lansbury, Delfouneso, Wickham, Steele.