Almost 12 months to the day England’s senior side began their Russian World Cup odyssey last summer, 2019 sees the turn of the nation’s Young Lions take to the international stage, as the U-21s open their European Championship campaign on Tuesday evening against a much-fancied France in Cesena.
Aidy Boothroyd‘s burgeoning charges come into the tournament as the top seeds in the competition, alongside hosts Italy – who impressively beat Spain 3-1 in Bologna on Sunday – and Germany.
Before England ponder upcoming games against Group rivals Romania and Croatia to come, first up lies a stern examination of their title credentials in Les Bleuets, who boast one of the most potent attacking lines in the tournament.
Unbeaten Young Lions
Coming into this summer, England qualified for the Championships in winning their pool ahead of the Netherlands by eight points and going unbeaten throughout qualification, drawing just two games – home and away against Guus Til‘s Oranje. Falling to a last-minute friendly winner versus Germany in March would have been a blow however, having seen their 18-match unbeaten run broken.
Scoring 23 goals in their group, they also kept a 60% clean sheet ratio, and it will be their attacking and creative department that will be the focal point as England progress through the competition.
Boothroyd did not have any of the talent at his disposal in the upper echelons of the scoring tables, but such is the well balanced nature of this current English crop, the goalscoring burden is not held by any one player in particular.
So much so, that in only their 10 qualifying games, the Lions had 13 different names on the scoring sheet – seven of which are in the England this summer. Lacking a talisman to bring goals to the table may prove to be an issue in the latter stages, but for the time being and the way England play, there are a plethora of options to find the net when required.
Having worked closely with his senior counterpart Gareth Southgate now almost two years, the former Watford boss has instilled the same level of performance at U-21 level, having seen the likes of Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander Arnold and Ruben Loftus-Cheek promoted to the senior side in only the past 12 months.
In their stead however have come equally talented individuals. Aaron Wan-Bissaka has stepped into the Liverpool full-back’s boots with aplomb after a breakout season with Crystal Palace, whilst in defence his opposite flanksman Ryan Sessegnon now has Premier League experience under his belt. Though both Ezri Konsa and Fikayo Tomori will likely continue to ply their trade in the Championship with Brentford and Derby County, both men are mobile and composed on the ball.
England’s attack however will be the main focus of attention. With forward options in Aston Villa’s prolific marksman Tammy Abraham, Liverpool’s Dominic Solanke and Everton striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Leicester City winger Demarai Gray and Arsenal’s on-loan Hoffenheim star Reiss Nelson wait in the wings to this summer.
The Young Lions do not lack a spark in midfield also – far from it. Mason Mount has been tipped as star for the future for the senior side and was the driving force behind the Rams promotion bid last season, whilst Hamza Choudhury has cemented his place in the Foxes midfield after only six months.
His clubmates James Maddison and Harry Barnes will hold the keys to unlocking the opposition defence, whilst Phil Foden continues to make waves at Manchester City and will be banging at Pep Guardiola‘s door next season should he lead England to glory in Italy.
England’s best result in previous years was a decade ago in Sweden, when they were runners-up to Germany in 2009, after being thrashed 4-0 in Malmo by a team consisting of the likes of Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Mesut Ozil. The Lions have not won the competition since 1984, but this summer, the options and possibilties are many.
As can be said, for England’s opening opponents across the English Channel in France. As their respective older brothers look up to France as World champions, Les Bleuets are themselves molding a team capable of replicating their tournament win last summer.
Sylvain Ripoll‘s men compete in their ninth edition of the tournament this year and also had their last win in the ’80’s. Spear-headed by Lyon striker Moussa Dembele, the Frenchman netted fifteen goals last season in Ligue 1, but Lille frontmen Jonathan Bamba and namesake Jonathan Ikone are ones to watch with a beady eye.
The French midfield also has a strong Auvergne tone to it, with Lyon duo skipper Lucas Tousart and Hossam Aouar the lynch-pins in midfield. Former and present Arsenal men in Jeff Reine-Adelaide and Matteo Guendouzi will form the spine of the France line, whilst Celtic’s Olivier Ntcham is the workhorse in front of the back line.
A set-up that like many French defences in the past, will be hard for England to break down. Ibrahima Konate and Dayot Upamecano have combined to be a resolute and stubborn unit for Leipzig. Whilst the latter has endured a difficult season due to injury, Konate has been clocked as the fastest centre-back in the Bundesliga.
Across the pitch both England and France the two are evenly matched and whilst both will expect to qualify for the quarter finals regardless of Tuesday evening’s result, a win here will be a tonic that could set up the rest of the summer in Italy and San Marino. But as it is, a draw is on the cards.
Prediction: England 1-1 France
England’s U-21s begin their European Championship campaign on Tuesday evening against France at Stadio Dino Manuzzi in Cesena, Italy, kick off 8pm UK time.
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