England MU21s secure crucial Euro qualifying victory
England men’s under-21s might have been without Emile Smith-Rowe but it made no difference as they saw off previously unbeaten Czech Republic 3-1 at Turf Moor in their 2023 UEFA European Under-21 qualifier.
The Arsenal attacker has been a key man for the Under-21s but was called up to the England senior squad this week. In his absence, debutant Anthony Gordon stepped into the breach by making one and scoring another in the first 11 minutes.
That set England on their way as they powered past the Czechs, who had won four out of four in qualifying and not conceded a goal before tonight.
Folarin Balogun, who came in for Rhian Brewster up front, added a third on the half-hour and while Adam Karabec pulled one back from the spot before half-time but there were no goals in the second half as England cut the gap at the top of the group to two points, with a game in hand on this evening’s opponents.
England’s pressing proved a source of possession all game long, leading to chance after chance for the home side.
And it was thanks to that pressure that the second and third goals came, after Gordon had made a dream start to his MU21s career.
Just four minutes in, the Everton man found himself with a little bit of space on the edge of the box and curled an effort that deflected off Martin Vitik and past a helpless Matej Kovar in the Czech net.
Initially credited with the goal, Gordon’s effort was eventually deemed an own-goal, but he made sure that he got onto the scoresheet seven minutes later.
Balogun read a dangerous pass across the defence from Adam Gabriel, slid the ball to Conor Gallagher on the right and while Kovar kept out his strike, he could only palm it into the path of Gordon who stabbed home at the back post.
The next goal was another example of England’s counter-attacking intent, Jacob Ramsay winning the ball just inside the Czech half and turning upfield. He had plenty of options and slid the ball to Balogun who fired home on the angle to make it 3-0 with half an hour gone.
England were flying, but were brought back to earth a little when Luke Thomas clipped Karabec in the box and the Czech picked himself up to score the penalty with a shot straight down the middle.
The Czechs had a chance to cut the deficit further before half-time from a free header from a free-kick but Vitik could not find the target.
England again looked the more threatening after the break, with Gordon forcing another save out of Kovar shortly after half-time.
The second period was a largely quiet affair as England were able to manage their lead with limited threat from the visitors, whose only shot on target on the night was from the spot.
The only slight dampener was the sight of Cole Palmer limping off with 20 minutes to go on enjoyable evening for England’s Young Lions.
For manager Lee Carsley, the way England came out in the second half and ensured there would be no repeat of the draw in Slovenia when they let a two-goal half-time lead slip, was as pleasing as anything else.
He said: “It wasn’t pretty at times, especially in the second half. It got a bit scrappy and we played a bit longer than I’d have wanted to have played but they found a way to stay in the game and ultimately the three points is key.
“It was funny because at half-time, I didn’t want to give too much praise. It was a really good first half but I was aware of the fact that against Slovenia we had a really similar performance, created lots of chances, went in 2-0 up and then ultimately ended up drawing the game. The lads deserve it, they are really good group to work with, we’re very lucky.”
And Gordon, who was named Player of the Match for his display, added: “It was a really good game, I was happy to score, we started really well and eased off in the game. I loved it.
“The first one was an own-goal? I’m claiming that one all the way. The second one, Conor did really well and I just had to tap it in.
“We spoke in training and planned to press them like that. We knew that they wouldn’t be able to play if we pressed them like that so it’s credit to us that we played the way we trained and it paid off.
“I thought we managed the game really well. They are a good team so we stuck together and dug in.
“We knew this was a big game because they haven’t lost and they haven’t even conceded a goal so to put in a performance like that and go 3-0 up so early shows how good we are when we’re on it.”
Lastly, striker Balogun added: “It was a good feeling. It’s a moment I have waited for, for a little while, it was nice to score on my first start. I look forward to more opportunities.
“It was good to get 3-0 up but we know the game is never wrapped up. We know that if we don’t play the right way, we’ll leave an opportunity for the opponents. So we tried to finish the job as well as we could and we’re happy with the three points.
“The most important thing was that even though we look to keep clean sheets, if we concede, we can’t let our heads drop and we need to show a good reaction and we did.
“It’s always amazing having the fans out supporting us so we just want to say thank you to everyone who came out.”
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England: 1 Josef Bursik (Stoke City), 2 Max Aarons (Norwich City), 3 Luke Thomas (Leicester City), 4 Marc Guehi (Crystal Palace), 5 Taylor Harwood-Bellis (Anderlecht), 6 Oliver Skipp (Tottenham Hotspur), 8 Conor Gallagher (Crystal Palace), 9, Folarin Balogun (Arsenal), 10 Cole Palmer (Manchester City), 12 Jacob Ramsay (Aston Villa), 19 Anthony Gordon (Everton)
Substitutes: 11 Angel Gomes (Lille) for Palmer 72, 20 Morgan Gibbs-White (Sheffield United) for Balogun 76, 15 Charlie Cresswell (Leeds United) for Gallagher 88
Substitutes not used: 13 Etienne Green (Saint-Etienne), 14 Tommy Doyle (Hamburg), 16 Clinton Mola (Stuttgart), 18 James Garner (Nottingham Forest), 21 Cody Drameh (Leeds United), 22 Josh Griffiths (Lincoln City)
Head coach: Lee Carsley
Goals: Vitik own goal 4, Gordon 11, Balogun 30