England Under-21s slump to opening defeat at hands of Portugal
With Sweden having already secured three points in the earlier Group B kick-off against Italy, the pressure was on Gareth Southgate’s England from the off in their Under-21 European Championship opener, and it told as Portugal ran out 1-0 winners thanks to a second-half strike from Joao Mario.
England were rocked by the injury to in-form forward Saido Berahino before kick-off, as he was replaced in the squad by Wolves striker Benik Afobe, and his prolific presence was truly missed as Tottenham frontman Harry Kane struggled to genuinely impose himself on proceedings.
The Three Lions began brightly, though, with Spurs duo Tom Carroll and Kane coming close to making an instant impact, as the former played his club teammate in on goal and, if not for a late offside call, could have put his nation in front.
Immediately, Portugal had a great chance of their own, with Ricardo Esgaio delivering a pinpoint delivery from the right flank to pick out Ricardo Pereira, but a strong hand from Stoke City shot stopper and Under-21 skipper Jack Butland denied an early opener.
Norwich City attacker Nathan Redmond stung the hands of stopper Jose Sa from close range after 11 minutes played, with the winger swivelling in the penalty area and unleashing a driven effort straight down the throat of Portugal’s goal guard.
Rui Jorge’s side began to grow into the game with Sporting Lisbon anchorman William Carvalho becoming a towering presence in the centre of midfield, resembling more of an experienced international player on the ball, rather than that of Portugal prospect, using his experience at senior level wisely.
Manchester United attacker Jese Lingard is regarded highly at Old Trafford, and he nearly made his mark on proceedings midway through the first period, when his smashing long-range strike forced Sa to react hurriedly, but his attempt narrowly sailed over the crossbar.
The last time Portugal were successful in this competition was 12 years ago, when a certain Cristiano Ronaldo guided his side to victory at Goodison Park, but this year much hope and expectancy was placed upon the shoulders of Monaco’s Bernardo Silva, whose influence on attacks grew towards the break with several dangerous crosses.
Louis van Gaal will be keen to see how his young star Lingard performs on this European stage, and the Red Devils attacker came closest for England as his curling shot from the left wing just fizzed agonisingly past the far post.
Southgate’s young Lions were quick to move the ball around on the floor and keep their opposition at bay in the first 45 minutes, in a relatively cagey opening encounter for both teams which saw few clear cut chances.
After the restart, Ben Gibson came charging out and conceded a needless free-kick to put his side under immediate pressure, but the subsequent delivery was easily dealt with, leaving Butland untroubled yet again.
Although, moments before the hour mark, Portugal took the lead through Mario, as the incoming attacker reacted quickest to place high past a helpless Butland after a goal-mouth scramble, which saw Silva’s initial shot deflect luckily into the goalscorer’s path.
Derby County’s promising midfield maestro Will Hughes cut a frustrated figure, as he was limited to few chances in the centre, but he managed wriggle free and tee-up Nathaniel Chalobah for a right-footed effort in the Portugal danger area, though the attempt was blocked.
A determined Kane received the ball on the edge of the box soon after, following a driving run through midfield from Lingard which led to space opening up, and the Spurs striker aggressively unleashed a low driven effort which had Sa scrambling.
Everton left back Luke Garbutt saw his whipping free-kick from deep on the right flank cleared, after a similar set-piece routine to that of fellow Toffees full back and senior defender Leighton Baines, but Portugal managed to see out any incoming danger.
With quarter of an hour to play, Southgate turned to new Liverpool striker Danny Ings to try and force an opening, with the recently obtained Anfield attacker replacing a lively Lingard up front, partnering an isolated Kane.
As the full-time whistle approached, England grew increasingly frustrated, especially in the midfield areas, where Hughes and Chalobah continued to lose possession in tight battles with Carvalho and Sergio Oliveira.
Ings, more used to making an impact from the start for Burnley in the Premier League last season, was unable to force a late equaliser as England’s Under-21s made the worst possible beginning to their European Championship campaign in the Czech Republic.