Portman Road treated to some exhibition football by the England Under-21s
- Credit: PA
Who said England can’t produce flair players?
Those who were at Portman Road tonight were treated to some exhibition football from a Three Lions’ Under-21 team packed with an array of attacking talent, the exciting forward quartet of Wilfried Zaha, Ravel Morrison, Tom Ince and Saido Berahino the driving force behind a 5-0 win over Lithuania.
West Ham midfielder Morrison was undoubtedly the star of the show, the second of his two goals getting a crowd of 17,067 on their feet.
Almost a replica of his mesmerising solo effort against Tottenham recently, the precocious 20-year-old collected the ball inside the centre circle before driving beyond several would-be tacklers. This time – just for kicks – he rounded the keeper before rolling the ball into an unguarded net.
The first of Berahino’s two goals wasn’t bad either, a fine first-time effort on the angle which curled beyond the keeper. His fairytale story continues. Ten years ago he fled war-torn Burundi to gain political asylum in Birmingham. Loan spells at Northampton, Peterborough and Brentford made him a better player. Suddenly he is scoring the winner at Old Trafford and spearheading the England Under-21 attack.
Southampton midfielder James Ward-Prowse had whipped home a fine free-kick in the first half, Morrison’s cheeky 360 degree spin having drawn the foul.
It was the trickery of Manchester United winger Zaha which led to Morrison poking home the early opener, with a driving run from Liverpool full-back Jack Robinson leading to the penalty which Berahino converted for 5-0.
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Manager Gareth Southgate wants his players to show that this nation isn’t in the Dark Ages when it comes to playing style. He wants his young side to prove that English players can control games in the manner that the top European club sides do, dominating possession and pressing high up the pitch to win the ball back quickly.
Against poor opposition that parked 11 men behind the ball, it would have been easy to lose discipline last night. Instead, Southgate’s players patiently knocked the ball around, tired the opposition and then ruthlessly took advantage.
The large groups of schoolchildren in attendance will have lapped up some of the showboating. For the older fans in attendance it was a slightly surreal experience following years of anti-climaxes and false dawns as an England football fan.
Every single one of this young side looks comfortable on the ball, from front to back. And you have to take into account that last night Southgate was without the services of Raheem Sterling and Will Hughes, while he also had the luxury of naming players like Nathan Redmond, Nick Powell and Jesse Lingard on the bench.
What was also impressive was the way the players didn’t take their foot off the gas. In fact, there was a heated exchange between Morrison and Zaha at 5-0 as the two appeared to argue over who should take a free-kick. Morrison had tried to wrestle the ball off Berahino for the penalty too.
Former Manchester United boss Sir Alex Ferguson said that Morrison had the potential to be an unbelievable player or trouble.
That statement probably still rings true, with Norwich winger Redmond – who had to pull him away from Zaha during that late spat – admitting that the Hammers star can be frustrating to play with.
Indeed, on one or two occasions, he was far too greedy for his own good, taking on one too many players rather than playing the easy pass.
Zaha can be the same. His decision-making can let him down at times.
What a wonderful ‘problem’ that is for an England manager to have at last though!
Remember, a certain Cristiano Ronaldo was labelled a ‘one trick pony’ when he first arrived at Manchester United. Give these young players the freedom to express their raw talent and they will improve.
In years to come, the majority of England fans will reflect on October 15, 2013 as the night that Wayne Rooney and Steven Gerrard fired the nation into the World Cup.
Those who were in attendance at Portman Road last night may instead look back and say ‘I saw those players when they were first coming through’.
England finally have some raw talent to get excited about.
And with Southgate banning the word ‘talent’ – instead talking about ‘potential’ – the FA seems to have the right man to help them progress.
With new FA chairman Greg Dyke keen to make changes, a commission in place and the National Football Centre at Burton open, it’s no longer all doom and gloom being an England fan.
Maybe, at last, we can allow ourselves just to feel a little bit positive about the future.