Aidy Boothroyd’s England U21s claimed a narrow victory over Daniel Isaila’s Romania U21s in the Cyrille Regis International at Molineux Stadium on Saturday evening to carry on a run of four consecutive wins that started in September 2017.
The Three Lions led from the eighth minute when Demarai Gray, captaining his nation for the first time, opened the scoring, with both teams wasting plenty of chances before the half-time whistle.
Debutant and Man of the Match Jake Clarke-Salter looked to have put the contest to bed with just under 20 minutes remaining, making the score 2-0, but substitute Valentin Costache made things interesting.
The visitors piled on the pressure late in the affair and could have easily broken England hearts in the dying embers, just unable to force their way through, in the end, to slip to their first defeat in just under a year, meaning that the home nation got the triumph they deserved.
From the start in Wolverhampton, home manager Boothroyd was forced into naming an experimental starting Xl by injuries in the days leading up to the fixture.
Dean Henderson limbered up for a rare start between the sticks, while in front of him was Liverpool man Trent Alexander-Arnold, Fikayo Tomori, debutant Jake Clarke-Salter and Kyle Walker-Peters, also on debut was Ovie Ejaria who partnered Ainsley Maitland-Niles in defensive midfield, behind more attacking options Kieran Dowell, skipper Demarai Gray, Ademola Lookman and lone striker Tammy Abraham.
Meanwhile, visiting boss Isaila fielded one of the strongest teams available to him to take on higher-calibre opposition in the Young Lions and they would match their opponents for much of the contest.
Ionut Radu guarded the goal, Mihai Butean, Virgil Ghita, Leicester City star Alexandru Pascanu and Andrei Radu formed a back four, the away outfit sporting the same formation looking forward, Andrei Ivan was left up front on his own with a line of three behind him in Rochdale’s Mihai Dobre, Ianis Hagi and Florinel Coman, the two protecting the defence were Razvan Oaida and Steaua Bucuresti’s Dragos Nedelcu.
Prior to kick-off at the domestic home of Wolverhampton Wanderers, former Wolves and England star and pioneer of the game in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s Cyrille Regis, who sadly passed away aged 59 in January, was honoured with a minute’s applause and wreath laying ceremony including representatives from four of his eight former clubs.
With the memory of the legend Regis driving them on, the home side threatened early on and deserved their lead when it came in the first knockings and could have even led before that.
Against the backdrop of a jubilant Molineux atmosphere, Dowell and Arsenal star Maitland-Niles both tried their luck from range, the former’s effort sailing high into the Stan Cullis Stand and the latter’s testing out Radu, he would be picking the ball out of his own net mere minutes later.
Walker-Peters and Lookman combined to play first-time captain Gray into a promising position inside the penalty area, his turn of pace and shot caught Leicester teammate Pascanu off-guard and his hapless block wrongfooted the goalkeeper and diverted the ball home.
However, in the minutes that followed, the advantage was far from safe as the Romanians responded well by creating a golden opportunity with a silky attacking move.
Coman played a neat one-two with forward Ivan on the edge of the area and found himself behind the back line, but with Clarke-Salter closing in, could only fire high over Henderson and the crossbar.
The end-to-end nature of the affair soon became apparent when Abraham found himself free on the right twice in quick succession at the other end, once not hitting the target and a brave Radu diving at his feet to deny him the second time.
The theme of Isaila’s men missing golden chances continued as the game developed, but none were as quite embarrassing as centre-forward Ivan’s just before the half-hour.
Hagi smartly won play back in midfield and played a through-ball to Coman who looked up and spotted another player in bright yellow, with just Manchester United loanee Henderson to beat, the Krasnodar man saw his effort agonisingly roll onto the post and back out again.
Attention was soon back on the opposite end as Abraham was so very nearly picked out from the left side for a simple tap-in, stopped by some excellent defending and Dowell also got involved.
The winger was played in by Abraham of Swansea City and when he got to the by-line, went for a far-post finish as opposed to feeding him back, the ball rolling across the face of goal and out.
An action-packed first period would provide entertainment right until the last with England’s quality of delivery improving later, to no avail, however, and Dobre went close from range for the visitors.
Remarkably it stayed that way at the break, Boothroyd’s men had just edged it in terms of the play but could still count themselves fortunate, the exciting contest very much picked up where it left off after the break.
Controversy played its part earlier with Abraham being denied a penalty, replays showing he may have had an outside case, while Coman was always a threat on the left for Isaila’s boys, Walker-Peters’ desperate tackle denying a certain Dobre goal from his delivery.
The 2017 European U21 Championship semi-finalists soon found their stride, Alexander-Arnold’s delivery from the right improved and he found Abraham with a decent cross, his header looped off the bar on 65.
They hit the woodwork once more in the wake of the 70-minute mark, Lookman, currently on loan at Red Bull Leipzig, cut in from the left and hit a low and powerful shot that was tipped onto the post by Radu, the nation finally found the target from the corner.
Alexander-Arnold’s cross picked out the head of Clarke-Salter, who towered high above everyone else in the box with a header, so accurate that the Inter Milan keeper was routed to the spot.
It was some way to mark your debut for the man who went into the match off the back of consecutive red cards for Sunderland, he also had the armband at that stage, although contrary to many’s opinions, his teammates weren’t home and dry just yet.
A long free-kick delivery into the box by Hagi was missed by Henderson and bobbled down for substitute Costache eventually, he turned quickly to fire low into a half-empty net.
The strike set up a frantic final 13 or so minutes with the Lions having chances to put the game to bed and the Little Tricolours going ever so close to drawing level at the death.
First, Lookman and nearly super sub James Maddison could have avoided a tense finish altogether inside the final ten minutes, the Toffee unable to beat Radu and the Canary getting the ball past him, though striking the post, Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s two shots also whistled wide of the post.
The three attackers were almost made to pay dearly for their misses when Radu created the best of the Romanians’ chances to equalise, though Walker-Peters was the defensive hero once more.
The ex-Fiorentina star crossed from the left and the ball eventually found its way to Doru Dumitrescu off the bench, his volley was bound for the back of the net, the Tottenham Hotspur defender throwing his body in the way to stop it.
The final whistle was met with an almighty cheer from the over 15,000 inside Molineux and with that, the home nation has held on when the heat was being turned right up, showing their undeniable character in a great advert for Under-21 football.
The triumph will give the Young Lions confidence ahead of Tuesday night’s qualifier with Sheffield United at the nearby Bramall Lane, where they will face off with Ukraine U21s.
Whereas, Romania will now have several months to dwell on the end of their year-long unbeaten run, not playing again until September, when they too will be in Italy and San Marino 2019 qualifying action away in Portugal.
Man of the Match: Jake Clarke-Salter
If you want to read more about England U21s’ Cyrille Regis International victory over Romania U21s, you can catch our Five Main Talking Points here, or our Young Lions Player Ratings here, and for archives of our live text commentary, live from the Molineux Stadium Press Box on Saturday, hit up our Live Blog here.