Young Lions outclassed by Italy and exit UEFA Under-21s at group stage
Gareth Southgate’s Young Lions were pre-tournament second-favourites, but bowed out of the 2015 UEFA European Under-21 Championship at the group stage as Italy put them out with a classy 3-1 display.
Quick-fire first-half goals from Andrea Belotti and Marco Benassi put the Azzurrini beyond England. Southgate’s side were left to rue missed opportunities from key attacking trio Danny Ings, Harry Kane and Nathan Redmond, who grabbed a late consolation after Benassi sealed victory with another strike.
The Young Lions edged Sweden last time out, but Jesse Lingard’s goal then papered over some pretty big cracks. An English premium is often said to be paid for homegrown players, but on this evidence this new crop lacked sufficient wherewithal at a tournament stage to live up to their billing.
Southgate responded to edging past Sweden by making changes, four in all that included pairing Ings up top with Kane in attack. Everton’s highly-rated defender John Stones returned to the back four after being passed fit following a concussion, but his skills hardly shone through here.
Early Azzurrini glimpses gave way to a gilt-edge chance for Liverpool-bound Ings when found by a delicious through-ball from strike partner Kane. From a narrowing angle, the man who will be joined in the Anfield attack by Brazil’s Copa America star Roberto Firmino next season fluffed his lines by finding the side-netting.
Kane then worked Italy keeper Francesco Bardi from a similar area after a sublime first-touch in the left-hand channel from Carl Jenkinson’s cross-field ball.
Belotti ghosted in behind Ben Gibson to prod Domenico Berardi’s free-kick past Jack Butland midway through the first-half. The Young Lions defence was breached again moments later with Ings caught in possession by Lorenzo Crisetig, who was allowed to run and then let Benassi take over and beat Butland again.
An outstretched Bardi leg denied Redmond before the break when he broke free of Daniele Rugani’s shackles. Lingard also lashed wide after the interval.
There was further frustration for England thereafter as Kane chose to go it alone and shoot when he had Redmond breaking free down the left on a rare counter-attack.
Ings had no takers to get contact on his flicked header to a dangerous-looking Redmond free-kick and Lingard fired just wide with another opportunity across the Italian goal.
Benassi grabbed his second and the Azzurrini’s third with the Young Lions undone from a long throw. Former Fulham forward Marcello Trotta flicked on for Benassi to rise above a static Southgate defence and head home.
England plugged away in vain for a consolation with Kane pulling across the face of goal for Ings, but he couldn’t apply a goal-bound touch. Redmond did rifle in deep into second-half stoppage time, but this was far too late.
Sweden’s late leveler against Portugal meant Italy are also out, while the other two advance to the semi-finals alongside firm favourites Germany and Denmark. The state of English football and youngsters coming through will once again come under scrutiny, as may Southgate’s position after failing to deliver following an impressive qualifying campaign.