Aidy Boothroyd admitted his England Under-21 side were rescued from a disastrous defeat in their opening match of the European Championship by “super” goalkeeper Jordan Pickford as the new £30m Everton signing’s penalty save nine minutes from time secured a point against the holders, Sweden.
Ben Chilwell’s reckless challenge on Linus Wahlqvist looked like condemning England to a defeat that would have left their hopes of reaching the semi-finals hanging by a thread, only for Pickford to deny the same player from the spot with an excellent right-hand save.
It ensured England will go into their second match against Slovakia on Monday knowing there is all still to play for, although Boothroyd acknowledged they will need to improve drastically if they are to end a desperate record of failing to get out of their group at the last three tournaments.
“It was a fair result in the end and we can certainly play better than we did,” he said. “Sweden gave us problems which we dealt with. It was disappointing to concede a penalty – I’m not sure it was – but it was given, so it was. Of course we have our super goalkeeper that keeps penalties out.”
Pickford, who became the third most expensive goalkeeper in history on Thursday, had little to do in the first half as England made a decent start but Sweden gradually imposed themselves on the match and could have gone ahead when Pawel Cibicki’s curling effort from just outside the box cannoned back off the crossbar.
Chilwell also struck the woodwork from long range via a heavily deflected effort soon afterwards but could have little complaint about the penalty award after diving in when there appeared to be little danger.
Wahlqvist’s penalty was poorly struck but Pickford, after his initial stop, was on hand again to save the substitute Carlos Strandberg’s weak follow-up and enable England to hang on to the draw.
“I waited longer and held my ground and got to the penalty; that’s what you do,” the goalkeeper said.
“Sweden killed our tempo a bit, they had a game plan to let us have the ball at the back and now we move on to Monday. The main thing is not to lose the game. The first game is always tight and we came away with a draw. It’s down to us to win the next two.”
That will be no easy task despite Slovakia’s and Poland’s poor records at this tournament, with only the Group A winners guaranteed a place in the last four in the newly expanded format of 12 teams. Watched by the senior team manager, Gareth Southgate, and the Football Association chairman, Greg Clarke, England came into the game with the unwanted record of having conceded more goals at these finals than any other nation.
More than 5,000 Sweden supporters made the atmosphere in Kielce feel more like Stockholm than southern Poland, although at first it seemed as if this was England’s game to win. Tammy Abraham was unlucky to see his acrobatic effort just before half-time miss the target after an excellent flick-on from Alfie Mawson following a throw-in.
Boothroyd’s side also made a strong start after the break but were hampered by a disappointing end product from both flanks, with the Everton right-back Mason Holgate culpable at times. Lewis Baker struggled to make an impact from his No10 role as Nathaniel Chalobah and the captain, James Ward-Prowse, were frequently overrun in midfield and it seemed almost inevitable Sweden would secure victory as they poured forward as the clock ticked down.
Strandberg was particularly dangerous on the break and only a last-ditch challenge from Holgate prevented him from having a one-on-one with Pickford just before the penalty was conceded.
Boothroyd was philosophical about his side’s chances of progressing but, having seen Pickford complete his move to Goodison Park while away on international duty, admitted his admiration for the way the 23-year-old has handled the pressure.
“He has had quite a week,” he said. “Most people would struggle to deal with what’s happened and have some sort of dip but, touch wood, he doesn’t. I thought he was excellent.
“We want to qualify for the semi-finals and in order to do that we have to win games but it’s also really important we didn’t lose,” added Boothroyd.
“We’ll look back at it and say it’s a defining moment, I hope. It is important when we don’t play well we dig in and make sure we don’t get beaten.
“I’m not satisfied because I want to win every game but, when you get to this level, you have to be realistic that you can’t win every single game. What’s important is you keep focused and don’t get beaten and make sure you qualify.”
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