England’s hopes of banishing the demons from their past three attempts to escape their group at the European Under-21 Championship are still intact after a brave comeback win against Slovakia ensured their fate remains in their own hands before meeting Poland on Thursday.
Trailing at half-time to a Martin Chrien header following the disappointing opening draw with Sweden, goals from Alfie Mawson and Nathan Redmond within 16 minutes of the second half rescued Aidy Boothroyd’s team, who now know that another victory against the hosts will almost guarantee a semi-final spot for the first time since 2009.
That revival followed a dismal first-half display which had brought back all the bad memories from previous campaigns in Denmark, Israel and Czech Republic, with only a brave substitution at the break by Boothroyd rescuing his team. Now he will be optimistic that this brave comeback against a side who were roared on by a large contingent of travelling fans could create the momentum required to win a first title at this tournament since 1984.
Boothroyd had initially opted to make only one change from the 0-0 draw with Sweden on Friday, with Reading’s John Swift coming in for Jacob Murphy. But perhaps more significant was the switch to a diamond midfield, with Redmond partnering Tammy Abraham up front and Lewis Baker handed a deeper role. At first the tactic seemed to have had the desired effect as England looked more of a threat going forward with the captain, James Ward-Prowse, aiming to hit the front two with early balls to utilise their pace.
Other than a Nathaniel Chalobah effort that trickled harmlessly wide, however, they could muster no shots on target in the first 20 minutes and were made to pay by Chrien’s clever header from the former Manchester City winger Albert Rusnak’s corner that gave Jordan Pickford no chance. Baker almost equalised immediately, only for his left-footed effort from distance to drift just wide.
That was about as good as it got for the rest of the first half, with the familiar failings they exhibited against Sweden in the final third once more painfully obvious. Pickford was on hand to palm away Jaroslav Mihalik’s shot from outside the box just before half-time or it could have been even worse for Boothroyd’s side.
Ward-Prowse did force Adrian Chovan into his first save in stoppage-time with a curling free-kick but the England manager knew he had to act quickly or face yet another embarrassing exit from a major international tournament.
His solution was to bring on Murphy – who is usually deployed much further forward for Norwich City – at right-back for the disappointing Mason Holgate in the hope he could inspire a comeback. The change immediately had the desired effect as Redmond’s shot was turned behind for a corner with England in search of an equaliser. That was cleared to Murphy and his cross was eventually turned in by Mawson from close range at the second attempt.
Suddenly England seemed to grow in belief and Abraham was denied only by an outstretched Slovakian boot from Baker’s cross. The 19-year-old, who spent last season on loan at Bristol City from Chelsea, then played a crucial part in England’s second goal as he held off his marker superbly to allow Ward-Prowse to pick out Redmond with an excellent crossfield ball. The Southampton forward made no mistake as he cut inside on to his right foot and drilled the ball past Chovan.
Slovakia threw on the Borussia Mönchengladbach forward Laszlo Benes in an attempt to find a way back into the game yet, marshalled by the excellent Mawson, England’s defence stood firm.
“It was difficult – Slovakia are a very underrated team,” Boothroyd said. “We knew we had to stop their key players. We had a lot of possession in the first half without penetrating; in the second half we were more of a threat and scored two goals against a team who had the crowd behind them.”
Dressing room argument inspired revivial, reveals Mawson
Alfie Mawson revealed that a dressing‑room argument inspired England to come from behind to defeat Slovakia 2-1 and revive their chances of reaching the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship.
With his side facing elimination after finding themselves 1-0 down at half‑time the manager, Aidy Boothroyd, threw on Jacob Murphy at right-back and the Norwich City forward created the equalising goal for Mawson within four minutes. The Swansea defender admitted that, with their prospects of reaching the last four fading fast, it had been the former Watford manager who kept his cool when it mattered most.
“It got a little bit heated. A lot of players were frustrated,” Mawson said. “I was so frustrated about the goal. But Aidy was calm and calmed everyone down. We said we needed to man up and do the right thing.”
A second goal from Nathan Redmond sealed the 2-1 victory that means England now stand an excellent chance of reaching the last four if they can defeat the hosts, Poland, on Thursday.
“They were dropping so deep I thought we needed someone who was really attack-minded there,” Boothroyd said. “Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. But we scored off his cross. That’s what I’m paid for. I have to make the decisions. If we lose or draw, we’re out. We want to progress and do well. I thought we deserved our win.”
A draw in their opening match against Sweden meant England knew anything other than victory would make qualification almost impossible, with only the group winners guaranteed a semi-final spot.
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