England's hopes of progressing further in the European Under-21 Championships were crushed by a talented Italian side.
The Three Lions finished bottom of a group that they were expected to qualify from, and it is just another major tournament where England has failed. There are a number of reasons as to why it didn't work out for England's young stars, with arguably the main reason being that the squad that travelled to the Czech Republic could have been much stronger had players such as Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley been picked.
A player is eligible to play for England at under 21 level if they are under the age of 21 at the beginning of the calendar year in which a two-year European Under-21 Football Championship campaign begins, therefore, some players can still be eligible to play until the age of 23.
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There were high hopes for England's chances in this tournament, with players such as Harry Kane, John Stones and Danny Ings, there was a widespread belief that England were amongst the favourites to win the competition. However, this simply turned out not to be the case.
The campaign started with a poor display during a 1-0 defeat to a very strong Portugal side. There was no shame in this defeat; however it set the tone for the rest of the tournament. A 1-0 victory of Sweden thanks to a late Jesse Lingard goal saved England's blushes after a lacklustre performance which threatened to send England crashing out of the tournament before the third and final game against Italy. The late goal from Lingard gave England a great opportunity to qualify for the semi-finals despite not necessarily playing well.
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The match against Italy, however, was full of disappointments and what ifs for England. At 0-0 Danny Ings missed a great chance to give Southgate's side the lead, a chance that would later come back to sting England as two goals in the space of two minutes mid-way through the first half from Italy's Andrea Belotti and Marco Benassi made England's chances of qualifying through the group stages incredibly thin.
More chances were missed by England, with both Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard coming close; Italy's Goalkeeper Francesco Bardi was in inspired form. England were finished off in the 72nd minute due to a second goal from Benassi, making the most of poor marking from the England defence. An injury time goal from Norwich City's Nathan Redmond was no more than a consolation, leaving England bottom of the group and Gareth Southgate's future as manager in doubt.
After such an exciting build up to the tournament, many England fans are asking the same question, what went wrong? It could be argued that England fans feel as though we are better than we are, that we shouldn't be expected to win a major International tournament because we simply are not good enough. However, in the case of this tournament, we really could have been good enough to win it.
Players at home
With players such as Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Phil Jones, Luke Shaw, Wilfried Zaha, Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain all eligible to play for the team, England could have given themselves a great chance of winning the competition had they been allowed to/chose to pick players of this calibre. It is incomprehensible as to why we, as a country, did not give ourselves the best chance of winning this competition.
No disrespect to the players that did travel to the Czech Republic as part of the squad, but surely we would have given ourselves a much greater chance of winning the competition had we taken experienced players such as Jack Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones over Jake Forster-Caskey, Nathaniel Chalobah and Ben Gibson. With experienced players such as Wilshere and Oxlade-Chamberlain within the squad, the younger players may have benefitted.
They would have players in the squad that were used to this kind of pressure, enabling them to learn off them and grow as not only players, but also as people. However, these established Premier League players were off on their holidays early, leaving the young and inexperienced squad to enter the tournament under significant pressure and as is the same with every tournament England enter, an increasingly high level of expectation.
Matters were not helped in the build up to the tournament with Tom Ince rejecting the chance to play for the England Under-21s at the European Championships due to him wanting to concentrate on his club career. For a neutral, the controversy surrounding Tom Ince does not say a lot for the quality of the tournament and did surely not help Gareth Southgate in his attempts to convince other experienced, eligible players to join the squad.
It is yet to be seen whether Gareth Southgate will remain as England Under-21 manager or not, however one thing is for sure, something needs to be done about the state of English football at national level. We should be giving ourselves the best chance possible to win every tournament we enter, and to do this, we have to pick our best team. The younger players should see the Under-21 set up as an ideal opportunity to prove themselves at international level, showing that they are capable of the step up to the first team. By rejecting the chance to play, they are surely only hindering their own chances of making the England first team squad in the future.
Once again England have found themselves facing embarrassment due to a number of reasons and failures at a major International tournament. We have some extremely talented players coming through the ranks, such as Chelsea Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Manchester United's Jesse Lingard, however if these players are allowed to continue to grow, their clubs have to support them and not allow them to miss great opportunities such as representing England in the European Under-21 Championships.
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