Keith Downing’s England side held off late Portugal pressure with ten men to be crowned 2017 European U19 Champions in Gori yesterday.
A cagey encounter was expected on a sunny evening in Georgia, as the youngsters battled it out for the prestigious crown. However, fans and neutrals alike were treated to a thrilling display of football from both sides that was worthy of any major final.
It would be Helio Sousa’s Portugal who made the faster start to the tie, with Rui Pedro almost getting on the end of a Gedson Fernandes corner only for Dujon Sterling to get a key defensive touch. Despite the early Portuguese threat, The Three Lions soon found their feet and threatened with an Andre Dozzell free-kick which was well blocked at the back post. It soon became clear that Sousa’s men were prepared to put their bodies on the line for the prize when Diogo Dalot made another vital block to deny Mason Mount.
The end to end nature of the affair continued as the tie progressed and West Ham United winger Domingos Quina dragged a shot just wide from inside the area, with Isaac Buckley-Ricketts coming close for England at the other end. Fulham wonder-kid Ryan Sessegnon had impressed during the tournament with three goals and almost made it four just before the break with a left-footed shot that just flashed wide of Diogo Costa’s far post. The two teams were evenly poised at 0-0 at the blowing of the half-time whistle after an entertaining first-half, but far more was to come in the second period.
Portugal made a fast start to the final half of the tournament, but Mesaque Dju was denied by Aaron Ramsdale just moments after the restart. However, five minutes later, it would be The Three Lions who were celebrating wildly. A superb left-footed free-kick from Mount agonisingly struck the post, before Cheltenham Town defender Easah Suliman was on hand to nod home and leave England with 40 minutes to hold onto European glory.
The Portuguese fought back quickly and replaced forward Joao Felipe with fellow attacker Rafael Leao. The positive change would pay off almost immediately for the men in red, as Leao applied some deadly pressure to Sterling. A fantastic delivery was swung in from the right-side by Abdu Conte and the ball fell to Chelsea man who tragically sliced into his own net to bring Portugal level in fortunate circumstances with 35 minutes left to play.
Manchester City striker Lukas Nmecha had been the hero of the Semi-Final victory over The Czech Republic, as he popped up with a cheeky flick to clinch a place in the Final. They say that lightening doesn’t strike twice, but it does in Georgia. On 68 minutes, Mason Mount superbly made space for himself down the right side as he run away from the Portuguese back line and slipped a wonderful little ball across to Nmecha, the 18-year-old made no mistake in finishing into the empty net to give England their second lead of the game and 20 minutes to hold out.
The Three Lions were cruising and seeing off Portugal easily to streamline to a famous triumph, until midfielder Tayo Edun was given his marching orders with four minutes remaining. The Fulham man was cautioned for a second time by referee Srdjan Jovanovic for a trip in the centre of the field, Downing’s England now had an incredibly tense finish to endure.
Portugal almost drew dramatically level just moments after, but Miguel Luis was only able to find the side netting of The Three Lions’s net. However, arguably the chance of the game was to lay ahead for Portugal deep into stoppage time. Goalkeeper Diogo Costa had come up for a Portugal corner as one last throw of the dice and the Porto man found himself free at the far post, but could only head over from close-range. The Serbian referee finally blew the full-time whistle in the 96th minute and it was finally time for a superb young England side to celebrate.
So, Downing’s men have dazzled in Georgia and the victory marks the end of an incredible summer of Football for the England youth sides. England U17’s reached the final of their European Championship, but were narrowly beaten by Spain in Croatia. The U21’s were also Semi-Finalists in their version of the tournament and were beaten on penalties by Germany in Poland. However, The Three Lions U20’s won The U20 World Cup in South Korea. Many England fans are now left pondering the question: what does this mean for the senior side at next year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia? What a fantastic few months of youth football it truly was, as attentions now turn back to the domestic scene.