The last nine months of Harry Kane’s career might have been one of the most unforgettable breakthrough seasons of any English footballer in recent years but his Under-21s manager Gareth Southgate urged the striker to go one better and win their European Championship with England.
Southgate said Kane was, quite simply, as good as any player in the eight-team tournament, and that he had gone up another level since he was last with the Under-21s. Kane missed the friendlies in March because he was playing for Roy Hodgson’s senior team, and Southgate said that he and his staff had noticed the difference since his return.
Kane, 21, will lead England’s attack against Portugal here on Thursday night, the first of three testing group games in the two-week tournament. Southgate’s preparations were dealt a major blow, however, when a concussion injury to key centre-back John Stones ruled the Everton man out for the Portugal game and Sunday’s match against Sweden. There are also concerns about the fitness of Saido Berahino.
Southgate said Kane’s impact on his return has been obvious. “He comes back now and you can see his confidence, you can see his finishing ability,” he 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.
Euro Under-21s: Four to watch
Euro Under-21s: Four to watch
1/4 Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
England have to find a way of stopping this midfield playmaker in their opening game. Signed by Monaco for €16m from Benfica two years ago, he was part of the team that eliminated Arsenal from the Champions League. Already capped at senior level, he makes the team tick.
2/4 Kevin Volland (Germany)
The captain of a talented Germany team, Volland is a goalscoring winger who is a stalwart of Germany’s junior teams and has already been capped three times by Joachim Löw for the seniors. Has signed a new contract at Hoffenheim but is wanted by Borussia Dortmund
3/4 Andrea Belotti (Italy)
Goalscorer who will face England in the third group game a week today. The 21-year-old Palermo player has scored six goals in nine qualifying matches. Good partnership at Under-21s level with the Juventus striker Domenico Berardi
4/4 Filip Djuricic (Serbia)
Impressive in spells while on loan at Southampton. At 23, one of the most experienced players here. He has 22 caps for the senior team and four goals, including two against Scotland in 2014 World Cup qualifying. Benfica’s attacking midfielder is a key figure.
Profiles by Sam Wallace
“I don’t think anyone could envisage the level of the strides he has made – physically he looks a different specimen. The gym-based work Spurs do has helped his physicality, and of course the confidence of being a first choice among a really quality team. You do see lads at the age of 19 to 21 progress so quickly.”
Asked whether Kane was the equal of any player at the tournament, which includes the likes of Germany’s Max Meyer and Bernardo Silva of Portugal, Southgate said that was “definitely” the case. “I think one or two [of the English players] do really. There are some very good players, and the Portuguese have some very good players in the group – I think [with] ours, the desire is to see them transfer that into these games.”
As for Stones, he was injured in training on Tuesday in a collision with the goalkeeper Jack Butland. He was not knocked out cold but did suffer from sickness later in the day. Under the new concussion protocols adopted by the Football Association, any player diagnosed with the condition has to undergo a six-day break from football. That takes Stones to Monday, a day after the Sweden match and one before the third game against Italy.
The accomplished centre-back, who has been capped at senior level, is a loss for Southgate, who will replace him with the Middlesbrough defender Ben Gibson.
“We’ve said all along you have got to be prepared for setbacks and dealing with unexpected events and this is one of those,” Southgate said. “It’s happened to a few teams. I know of a couple of others who have lost players already.
“What is good is that throughout qualifying we have always used this squad and we have been forced to make changes,” he added. “It means we can trust everybody who goes in and everybody is ready to play. That is the important thing.”
Southgate, himself a veteran of four major tournaments with the England senior team, said he did not believe this squad would be intimidated by representing their country. England have not won a game at the Under-21s European tournament in two editions under their former manager, Stuart Pearce.
Southgate said his team were stretched in training as much as they ever were in games. He said: “We are not asking them to raise a level. I always remember talking to Keano [Roy Keane, his fellow ITV pundit] and 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 our defence are doing a session they have to mark our strikers. I don’t think they will have a harder test than that so that should give them belief in what they are doing.”
The Portugal coach, Rui Jorge, rates his team as among the best his country has produced in recent years. “What I can say is this group of players have enormous quality,” he said. “We have real depth – we have 23 players and even a few more with the same quality who we couldn’t select here.”