Monday, July 10, 2023

England's U21 Champions

England kept its run of tournament clean sheets intact in the most dramatic of fashions in winning the U21 European Championship on Saturday. So dominant was the England defense that goalkeeper James Trafford hadn’t needed to make a single save as England and Spain entered stoppage time with England clinging to a 1-0 advantage. Shockingly in the seventh minute of stoppage, Chelsea defender Levi Colwill was assessed for marginal contact in the box. Spain’s Abel Ruiz, the tournament’s joint highest scorer, was the victim of Colwill’s contact and the striker stepped up for what could have meant a tying goal, extra time and a possible shootout to determine a winner.

A well-rested Trafford, however, would have none of it. The Manchester City goalkeeper, who has never played a minute for the Citizens and is rumored to be headed for newly promoted Burnley, stepped up with not one but two crucial saves. Stopping Ruiz on the initial shot, Trafford quickly reoriented himself to stop the rebound chance from Spain. A third put back attempt by Spain then sailed over the bar. England thus captured the title for the first time since 1984 and became the first side to not allow a single goal throughout the tournament. England were fortunate on the winning goal which occurred in stoppage time of a first half which seemed destined for a goalless conclusion.

Manchester City’s Sergio Gomez then committed a needless foul in a dangerous position on fellow Manchester City youngster, Cole Palmer. Palmer’s subsequent free kick blasted into the wall and deflected at high velocity off the shoulder of Liverpool’s Curtis Jones. The providentially blessed trajectory of the ball found an upper corner of the Spanish net and Jones was accredited the fateful goal without really knowing much about it. Gomez’s foul, which contrasted with his dangerous attacking play in the final, reinforced the dual nature of a player who is dangerous going forward but too often on his heels in defense. A Gomez cross would later create Spain’s best chance for an equalizer from open play but the snakebit Ruiz muffed his header in front of the English net.

England’s goal and Trafford’s heroics were unfortunately both followed by some heated encounters between players and coaches. Palmer stared down the Spanish bench after the England goal, triggering a melee which saw England assistant and former Arsenal and Chelsea player Ashley Cole evicted from the proceedings along with Spanish fitness coach Carlos Rivera. Later tomfoolery saw England’s Morgan Gibbs-White and Spain’s Antonio Blanco ushered to premature exits shortly after Trafford’s heroics.

The tension of a final was exacerbated throughout the match by England’s physical play and Spanish diving. The English champions were little bothered by resentful comments from Spain after the match as the victory continued the upward trend of England’s youth program. The English have captured gold in U17, U19, U20 and now U-21 international tournaments in the last six years. Anthony Gordon was named the player of this tournament by UEFA after he scored twice and assisted on another goal in England’s march to the championship. His performance hopefully marks a pivot point for the youngster who was essentially a flop at Newcastle after scoring just once in 16 matches last season for the Magpies after the transfer from his boyhood club Everton. The natural midfielder played up top in a forward role for the U21 champions and that type of versatility is sure to have caught the eye of Newcastle Manager Eddie Howe.

Curtis Jones was yet another player whose versatility was on display in this tournament. The Liverpool youngster played in a more deep lying position than that he’s been tasked with for Jurgen Klopp’s Reds. Jones performance in a more defensive role was critical to England’s airtight defense in a tournament where the English outscored their opponents 11-0 over six matches. Ironically, that 11th goal, the tournament winner, was also credited to Jones.

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