Despite boasting a stellar squad, Aidy Boothroyd’s men are effectively out of the European Under-21 Championship after a dramatic 4-2 loss to Romania
They think it’s all over. It isn’t yet, of course, but it will be soon.
England’s dramatic 4-2 loss to Romania on Friday may not mathematically spell the end of their European Under-21 Championship hopes – but it is only a matter of time, with France only needing a draw against Croatia later in the evening to confirm the Young Lions’ elimination.
Aidy Boothroyd’s men still have one game remaining in Group C but, having failed to pick up a single point from their opening two fixtures, even a victory over Croatia in San Marino on Monday night won’t be enough to earn them a place in the semi-finals.
They knew it too. You could see it in their eyes as they trudged off the field at the Stadio Dino Manuzzi in Cesena at the end of a truly insane contest in which all six goals arrived in the final 14 minutes of normal time.
The near 5,000-strong Romania support made the atmosphere. England, though, played their part in an absorbing second half.
Twice, they came from behind to level matters, through winger Demerai Gray and substitute Tammy Abraham. And they went agonisingly close to doing it a third time but Abraham saw one close-range effort saved by Ionut Radu – and another come back off the crossbar.
As it was, Florinel’s second goal – which was as spectacular as his first was fortuitous – sealed England’s fate.
They will be heading home next week. And with some serious regrets.
Their despair at the full-time whistle was tough to see, with several players collapsing to to turf in anguish. And disbelief.
This was, as Boothroyd said himself, a better squad than the one that reached the semi-finals two years ago, beaten only on penalties by eventual winners Germany.
When they go out, questions will obviously be asked of the manager.
Certainly, the decision to start this must-win game with Phil Foden on the bench surprised many in the press box beforehand.
It was Foden, after all, who had nearly won England the game against France just three days previously, with a sensational solo goal.
The dramatic late collapse meant that he was needed more than ever before against a Romania side brimming with belief after a surprise 4-1 rout of Croatia in their tournament-opener.
Instead, the Manchester City midfielder was named among the substitutes, with Mason Mount selected to start ahead of him.
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Boothroyd defended his decision by saying he needed to “manage his minutes”. This wasn’t the time to do so, though, as the subsequent 90 minutes painfully underlined.
It was no coincidence that England struggled to fashion chances without their most creative force on the field.
His introduction, in place of the injured Ryan Sessegnon, changed the entire complexion of the Three Lions attack.
They had managed just one shot on target in the first half. They managed two in the three minutes that followed his arrival on to the field.
Yet, it was England’s defence which ultimately let them down, though, just as it had against France.
That was surprising given they had come through their qualification campaign undefeated, conceding just four times. In Italy, though, they have already shipped six goals in two outings.
In addition, whereas they got away with conceding two penalties against France, with both missed, this time around they were not so fortunate with George Puscas opening the scoring from the spot after a clumsy challenge from Jonjoe Kenny on Florinel Coman in the area.
Credit to the Young Lions, they came roaring back every time they suffered a setback, with Demarai Gray levelling with a fine curling finish, only to see Ianis Hagi – son of the great Gheorge – put Romania back ahead with five minutes remaining after a botched clearance from Fikayo Tomori.
England drew level again, with Abraham coolly slotting home a clever pass from Mount, but just as they looked set to force a winner, calamity once again struck.
After Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s disastrous and costly own goal against France – which cost him his place in the starting line-up here – came an awful goalkeeping error from Manchester United’s Dean Henderson, who somehow allowed Coman’s long-range strike to squirm under his body and over the line.
It was an unforced error which rather summed up England’s campaign and, despite their best efforts, there was to be no way back for the Young Lions in this game. Or in this tournament overall.
England’s coming home.