The modern curse of the Under-21s European championships continued for Gareth Southgate’s England team, beaten by Portugal and now one game into their third tournament without a single victory. Depleted by injuries, out-passed at times by their opponent, English men’s football is in danger of facing another summer of early flights home.
They are now without Saido Berahino for the rest of the tournament, another victim of the training ground injury syndrome that earlier saw for John Stones. The West Bromwich Albion striker will fly home after a knee injury in training on Wednesday and he left the stadium in Uherske Hradiste with a brace on his right knee. If Southgate’s boys did not feel it already, the pressure is now really on.
The pre-match warning from Southgate was that Portugal were among the most accomplished teams in the competition and he was certainly right on that score. There were times when the football they played - with Monaco’s Bernardo Silva pulling the strings – was on a different level to their English counterparts.
Southgate was adamant that his side were only narrowly beaten – and he has a point. The difference is that the very best of Portugal trumped the very best of England, especially with Harry Kane isolated for much of the game
On the evidence so far, Portugal are the best team in the tournament, and England can point to the two key men they have lost to injury. Yet given that Danny Ings scored 11 Premier League goals this season in a Burnley team that was relegated, it was a surprise, to say the least, that Southgate left it until the 73rd minute to throw the striker on.
The challenge now is that the tournament does not fizzle out for England as it did for the senior side at the World Cup finals last summer. England face Sweden in Olomouc on Sunday, and the Swedes share the lead of Group B with Portugal having pulled off a surprise victory over Italy earlier in the day. It is a measure of how seriously the Football Association take the Under-21s now that chairman Greg Dyke was at the game, although even he would have to defer to One Direction’s Louis Tomlinson, also at the match, when it comes to profile.
The problems were familiar for England: Sporting Lisbon winger Joao Mario scored the game’s only goal after 57 minutes but without Stones, the limitations of the English defence had been exposed before then.
The day began for England with their second major injury in the space of 24 hours, this time the knee of Berahino, and by lunchtime the decision was that he would play no further part in the tournament. As the top goalscorer in qualification, the impact of his withdrawal could not be underestimated; as the second injury in quick succession to big players it was even worse.
Southgate had put a brave face on the training ground concussion of Stones the previous day, which ruled him out for the first two games in the group. Berahino’s injury was even harder to take and the England coach said to television reporters before the match that both players had been in tears when the diagnoses had come in.
Rui Jorge’s Portugal had the best of the first half with Bernardo and captain Sergio Oliveira controlling much of the game. Jack Butland had to save a goalbound ball deflected off the leg of Liam Moore on seven minutes but otherwise the Portuguese did not create many chances for all their confident possession.
England struggled in midfield, where James Ward-Prowse and Nathaniel Chalobah found Bernardo and William Carvalho difficult to pin down, especially in the early stages of the game. The Portuguese penned their opponents back at times and Southgate’s players lacked the confidence to get on the ball and play through them.
It was telling that Tom Carroll, the Spurs man who is the Under-21s playmaker, found himself dropping ever deeper to get the ball. Yet England made chances in the first half, most of them created by Kane who saw too little of the ball but was very direct and forceful when he did. The Spurs striker hit two shots in the space of a minute towards the end of the first half and the first required an excellent save from goalkeeper Jose Sa.
England were more direct when they did have the ball and worked openings for Nathan Redmond, playing down the right, and Jesse Lingard, Berahino’s replacement, on the opposite wing. The latter was played in down the left with a minute of the first half to play and might have done better with his shot.
Even so it looked from the start that while Portugal might have the most possession, England had the man most likely to create a goal from nothing in Kane. He just did not see enough of the ball to make it happen.
England needed to start the second half better than they had the first, and for a few minutes they looked promising. There was a shot from Redmond and a sharply dipping free-kick from Ward-Prowse that was whipped over the wall and wide, but there was no building on the early momentum and Portugal took the lead soon after.
All game, England had looked clumsy in defence with Luke Moore and Ben Gibson, Stones’ replacement, uncertain with the ball at their feet. They failed to clear on 57 minutes and after what looked like a foul on Bernardo in the penalty area, the Monaco midfielder picked himself up when the ball ricocheted to him off Luke Garbutt and struck the post.
The ball rebounded back behind Butland and fell nicely for the sharp little winger Joao Mario who guided the ball in at the near post. Before then Southgate had brought on Will Hughes, of Derby County, for Ward-Prowse, to introduce a level of control into the midfield that his side had lacked up to then.
Both Ings and Pritchard were effective and were given brief sights of goal late on. There was a period of English pressure in injury-time that required the Portuguese to stand firm. Unfortunately, their backs are now against the wall when it comes to qualification for the semi-finals and they need to beat Sweden on Sunday.
England (4-2-3-1): Butland; Jenkinson, Moore, Gibson, Garbutt; Ward-Prowse (Hughes 54), Chalobah; Redmond, Carroll (Pritchard 79), Lingard (Ings 73); Kane.
Portugal (4-3-1-2): Jose Sa; Esgaio, Ilori, P Oliveira, Guerreiro; S Oliveira, Carvalho, Joao Mario (Neves 86); Bernardo Silva; Cavaleiro (Medeiros 73), Ricardo Pereira (Mane 79).
Referee D Makkelle (Netherlands).
Match rating 6/10.
Man of the match Bernardo Silva.
Attendance 7,167.Reuse content