Demarai Gray shines as England U-21s make Euro semi-finals
After the success of the Under-20 team, another England age-group team is performing well on the big stage
England U-21 3 Poland U-21 0
England's 'Young Lions' cruised past Poland on Thursday evening to reach the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship for the first time since 2009. The win left England top of Group A, one point ahead of Slovakia, who thrashed Sweden by a similar margin, and it means they are into the last four next Tuesday.
Their opponents will be determined after Saturday's final group games but they will play either Portugal from Group B or Germany, Italy or the Czech Republic from Group C. "It's good to progress but the job's not over, we are focused on the semi-finals," said Leicester City winger Demarai Gray. "Can we go further? Why not? We will cause any team problems."
Gray got England going after just six minutes with a long-range strike and the Young Lions dominated their hosts for the rest of the half with Polish keeper Jakub Wrabel doing well to save efforts from Nathaniel Chalobah and Alfie Mawson.
Gray, who was making his first start of the tournament, set up substitute Jacob Murphy for the second goal on 69 minutes, and Lewis Baker made it 3-0 eight minutes from time when he scored from the penalty spot after Jan Bednarek had been sent off for tripping Tammy Abraham in the box.
"Demarai Gray was terrific," said England U-21 manager Aidy Boothroyd. "He worked his socks off. It is a squad game and one of the hardest things is keeping the lads who aren't playing motivated."
The only blemish of the evening were injuries to Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Redmond, both of whom will be assessed by the England medical staff today. Other than that, said Boothroyd, it was another encouraging night. "After the first game [against Sweden], which was a draw, it was doom and gloom but we have a good group here and got the two wins that we needed. It was a high-pressure game, if we hadn't won then we would be out. We carried out the game plan to a T. We controlled the game and played really well."
As for England's chances of going even further, and perhaps emulating the Under-20s, who won their world championships earlier in the month, Boothroyd said: "We're getting better and better all the time. I think there's more to come from our side. We should be tip-top by Tuesday. We were among the best 12 teams in Europe, and now we're down to the last four. Our next challenge is to get to the last two."
Battling England U-21s look to impress Gareth Southgate
Slovakia 1 England 2
England gave themselves a good chance of qualifying for the semi-finals of the European Under-21 Championship with a battling 2-1 win over Slovakia in Group A.
Having drawn with Sweden in their opening game on Friday, the young Three Lions knew a win was crucial if they were to put themselves in a strong position of reaching the last four of the tournament.
That looked a remote possibility when they went a goal down on 23 minutes as Martin Chrien headed past Everton's £30m goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, but second half goals from Swansea defender Alfie Mawson and Southampton's Nathan Redmond turned the tie on its head.
"We were annoyed," said Mawson of a dismal first-half performance from England. "We said we needed to man up and do the right thing. Credit to us and we did what we needed to do. We don't take it in a negative way. We could have crumbled at 1-0 down but we stood up and passed the test."
Poland and Sweden then drew the other group game 2-2, a result that leaves England top of the pool on four points, one more than Slovakia. Victory against tournament hosts Poland in the final group game on Thursday will therefore ensure they finish top of Group A and progress to the semi-final. Only the winners of each of the three groups go through to the last four, along with the best placed runner-up.
"It was difficult," said England U-21 coach Aidy Boothroyd. "Slovakia are a very underrated team. We knew we had to stop their key players tonight. We had a lot of possession in the first half without penetrating. In the second half we were more of a threat and scored two goals against a team who had the crowd behind them."
Present in Kielce was England manager Gareth Southgate, whose own experience of coaching the U-21s in a European Championships was not a memorable one. They failed to make it out of the group stage in the 2015 tournament, a similar failure to that of 2011 and 2013, but his presence in Poland is galvanising the Young Lions.
"It's great to have him and Steve Holland [Southgate's assistant] around," said captain James Ward-Prowse. "He wants to show us support and give us that confidence. We have a lot of friends in the seniors now and it is a time for us to show him what we can do individually and as a team."