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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

England on Form in Challenge Trophy

ENGLAND Under-23s battled to third spot in a tough European Challenge Trophy group in Ireland last weekend, beating the host nation and pushing their other rivals all the way.

The youngsters took on teams from Georgia, the Faroe Islands and Ireland in the Challenge Trophy in Limerick. Despite coming 3rd in the group, the team surprised many by their performances.

The first game on Friday saw England take on Georgia who were the pre-tournament favourites to win the group and progress to the final playoff in Serbia in January.

Right from the early stages of the game though the England team were not overawed by their more favoured opponents. Indeed it took Georgia almost 25 minutes to eke out a slender 1 goal lead. It was only some good saves by the Georgian keeper and a couple of late fast breaks that allowed the Georgians to go in at half time with a three-goal lead at 13-10.

The second half started similar to the first with both teams being very closely matched. It was only a relatively poor 10 minutes spell during the middle of the second half that allowed the Georgians to gain more of an advantage and increased their lead to six.

After a time out to regroup, England regained their composure to reign back the Georgians and to match them for the remainder of the half. The Georgians eventually running out winners by six goals at 22-28.

But in the end it was a story of what might have been. England were made to pay for the chances they missed early in the game. The score could have, and probably should have been much closer. Indeed, a win for England would not have been out of the question, and that's not something you hear said regularly in international handball!

In the other game of the first day, the Faroe Islands took on Ireland and had a comfortable 10-goal victory, winning 30-20.

The second day of the tournament saw England take on the Faroe Islands where handball is pretty much the national sport, so a tough task was clearly going to be the order of the day.

However, England set out in similar vein to the day before against Georgia, keeping the Faroes to a narrow lead. Every time the Faroes seemed to be gaining an upper hand England would bring them back to within touching distance. At half time the Faroes held a narrow three-goal lead at 15-12.

During the second half of the game England seemed to come over very nervous. Whether there was new found expectation putting on pressure is unclear. But somehow England lost all cohesion and fluency.

This, combined with some brilliant shooting from the Faroe Islands wingers, allowed them to stretch their lead to 10 goals by the middle of the half. From then on the England players were just trying too hard to claw back the deficit. There's an old adage that under pressure old habits tend to return. And this was clearly the case here where players would, for the right reasons, try to force a shot or a pass that was clearly not the right decision to make.

This in turn lead to numerous turnovers and the resulting breaks gave the English goalkeepers no chance. In the end what could have been a close-run game turned in to a devastating loss with the Faroes winning the game by 18 at 40-22.

In the other game of the day Ireland faced Georgia and lost by 16 goals.

Day 3 of the tournament saw England take on Ireland. For the Irish this was the game that mattered. For the English it was a case of getting back some pride after the Faroes game.

The game started well for England with a couple of early goals giving them the initial advantage. However, the Irish weren't going to take this lying down and quickly made a comeback to draw level and then take a slender lead themselves.

At this point old habits once again returned for the English. A number of silly shots and mistakes giving the Irish easy return goals allowing them to go in at half time four goals up at 15-11.

Clearly something needed to change. This is the time good coaching is needed and it was much a case of the right words at the right time delivered in the right way from coach Paul Popovic that allowed the England lads to come out for the second half in a much better position than they went in.

What was to follow was a true testament of what the lads were really capable of - an awesome display of handball.

Right from the start of the second half their new fighting spirit saw the lads claw back the deficit from 3 goals, 2 goals, to 1 goal. The crowd that had been raucous and load in the first half grew quiet as the sea of change passed over them. The only cheering now was coming from the English.

Goal after unanswered goal was now the order of the day. Some fantastic defensive blocking combined with great goalkeeping made life almost impossible for the Irish when they attacked. When they were forced to defend they had no match for the English creativity which simply tore their defence apart.

The four-goal half time deficit turned into a seven-goal lead by the latter stages of the second half. It was only a couple of late goals that gave the Irish a more respectable score. A second half performance that saw the English score 18 goals to the Irish 9 gave them the victory at 29-24.

In the other game of the day the Faroe Islands and Georgia met to determine who would win the group and take the spot in the final in Serbia. The Faroes started well and led by six at one stage of the first half.

The Georgian's however fought back well to get within a goal of the Faroes by the middle of the second half. The two teams remained close for the rest of the half but the Faroes managed to hold on to win by three goals. They now go on to face Maldova in the final.

Performances of note during the tournament came from Rob Avery, Stuart Latchford and Rafik Tahraoui who were all nominated as English players of the game by the IHF/EHF observers in the three games respectively.

Congratulations also go to England’s Danny Coggins who was voted onto the tournament dream team as the best line player.

All in all a successful end to the trip. With the exception of the second half of the game against the Faroes, England finally showed that they can be competitive against continental opposition.

Indeed, whilst a good result came against the Irish, there was still a tinge of disappointment at not getting better results against the other two nations. It was very much a case of what could have been.

* Text: Kristian Marsh.

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