England Under-21s striker Saido Berahino is out of the European championships with injury another major blow for manager Gareth Southgate who has already lost defender John Stones for his first two games.
The news overshadows England’s first game against Portugal in Uherske Hradiste tonight, with Berahino going home today to be replaced in the squad by Wolverhampton Wanderers’ Benik Afobe, formerly of Arsenal. Afobe, who is able to join up under Uefa regulations, was in the original provisional squad named by Southgate but not included in the final 23.
Berahino, who has been in senior England squads, but never capped by Roy Hodgson, was a major part of the Under-21s qualifying campaign. The Manchester United winger Jesse Lingard is Southgate’s favoured replacement for Berahino in the team tonight, on the left side of the attacking trio behind Harry Kane.
Southgate said today: "It’s a great personal disappointment for Saido. He’s very conscious of it not affecting the team and we’re personally disappointed for him because he’s been with us from the very first game, scored our first goal and has been a huge part of the reason why we’re here.
"It’s a great shame he won’t be able to finish the job. For us, it’s important that we move on and the rest of the group respond and react in the right way as they have done throughout the competition.”
Berahino had 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.
The loss of central defender Stones was the first set-back, but Southgate was philosophical about his player’s 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 he had “kept in contact” with Afobe in case of an injury. “He [Afobe] has always been super positive about being involved and he’s excited by it. He’s had an excellent season with MK Dons and Wolves this season and he deserves the opportunity.
“He knows most of the group already from playing in other age groups so we’re looking forward to seeing him.”
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. Previous to the news of Berahino’s injury Southgate’s faith in his forwards has been 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.”
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