Gareth Southgate has fears over the fitness of a second key Under-21s player, Saido Berahino, before his team take on Portugal in their European championship opener this evening, having already lost John Stones for the opening two games.
The West Bromwich Albion striker has been having treatment on an injury following a closed training session yesterday in the team’s basecamp at Olomouc in the south-east of the Czech Republic. Everton defender Stones has already been ruled out for the Portugal game and the second match against Sweden on Sunday because of concussion protocols.
Berahino, 21, has been a key member of the Under-21s set-up and is set to start wide on the left. The injury is not thought to be serious but is significant enough that there are doubts over him playing tonight. The Manchester United winger Jesse Lingard is Southgate’s favoured replacement if Berahino is not fit to start.
Danny Ings can play in the wide position but is considered the main understudy to Harry Kane, in a squad that includes only three strikers. Southgate’s faith in those three forwards is unshakeable to the extent that he says there has been no greater test for his defenders than facing those three in training.
Asked why he did not think his players would freeze under pressure, Southgate said, “We are not asking them to raise a level. I always remember talking to Keano [Roy Keane, a fellow ITV pundit] about him training against Nicky Butt. He would say that’s the hardest game of the week for him! When he was going into a Saturday it wasn’t a problem.
“When I look at the [Under-21s] team, and the opposition … when our defence are doing a session they have to mark our strikers. I don’t think they will have a harder test that that so that should give them belief in what they are doing.”
The loss of central defender Stones is a major blow to the team, but Southgate was philosophical about the accident, a collision with Jack Butland while practising set-pieces. He is confident that his squad are ready for all eventualities and Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson will take Stones’ place.
Southgate said the Stones situation had not affected the squad. “I said to them, ‘This is a real test of how close you are and how you are going to respond to this.’ That’s another key fact in progressing. The group who play the part of the opposition in training now have really got to keep focused. John’s case is a classic example of why. But I have to say I didn’t think it would be an issue and it hasn’t been.”
As things stand, however, there seems little that perturbs Southgate about the tests that lie ahead. Asked about his three strikers, he declared them “as good as anything” available to the other big sides in the competition such as Germany, Portugal and Italy.
“You are always looking at the opposition and setting yourselves up to counter what they do. But you are also wondering ‘What are they thinking about us?’ And if we think our strikers are exciting to work with I am sure other teams are thinking the same. You can see the opposition is sometimes too frightened to attack because of our threat going the other way. – and that is a great asset for us to have.”
As for Kane, Southgate said that the Spurs man had been transformed even since November when he scored twice in a 3-2 defeat to France, which preceded his call-up to the seniors in March. “He [Kane] comes back now and you can see his confidence, you can see his finishing ability,” Southgate said. “Mentally, he has gone up another step. When you haven’t worked with him for a while you forget his real quality. It’s a good moment for several of the players.”
He said the striker also looked stronger. “Physically he [Kane] looks a different specimen,” Southgate said. “The gym-based work they do has helped his physicality and of course the confidence of being a first choice among a really quality team. You do see lads between the ages of 19 and 21 progress so quickly.”Reuse content