Aidy Boothroyd’s England U21s made it six consecutive victories in all competitions yesterday evening at Sheffield United’s Bramall Lane by overcoming Oleksandr Holovko’s Ukraine U21s.
The Young Lions have now won each of their last five Group 4 2019 UEFA European U21 Championship qualifiers and initially went ahead through Sheffield-born striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin.
A header from visiting debutant Mykola Shaparenko levelled things up for the Ukrainians seven minutes from time, though Liverpool’s Dominic Solanke was on hand to seal the deal on his team’s third triumph in the space of six days having defeated Romania in the Cyrille Regis International on Saturday evening at Molineux Stadium.
The three points for the home nation ensured their five-point lead atop of qualifying Group 4 remained intact for the time being but defeat for the visitors meant that they had to hand over second place to Holland at the end of the International break, severely damaging their hopes of making it to Italy & San Marino 2019.
From the start in Yorkshire, both managers went with strong line-ups for the vital encounter, the away side having not been in action since November 2017 and the home still recovering from their last game.
Boothroyd made a whole host of changes from defeating Romania with Angus Gunn starting in goal and Jonjoe Kenny, Dael Fry, Joe Worrall and Ben Chillwell forming a flat back four in front of him, protecting them were Everton and Tottenham’s Hotspur’s Tom Davies and Josh Onomah, with a four of Demaria Gray, the only man to keep his starting place, James Maddison, debutant Ryan Sessegnon and hometown hero Dominic Calvert-Lewin further forward.
Meanwhile, Holovko opted for Andriy Lunin between the sticks and Valeri Luchkevych, Ivan Zotko, vice-skipper Pavlo Lukyanchuk and Vasyl Kravets guarding his goal, a reinforced five in midfield sat beyond them containing Yurii Vakulko, Oleksandr Pikhalyonok, Volodymyr Shepelev, Viktor Kovalenko and Maxim Lunev, sitting behind lone striker and force to be reckoned with Artem Dovbyk.
On a mild evening in South Yorkshire, the match would very much start as it meant to go on, end-to-end with both sides threatening to gain an early advantage.
The visitors came the closest in the opening stages with a quick break finding its way to Pikhalyonok, whose effort flew just wide of the post before Calvert-Lewin headed straight at Lunin from a pinpoint cross.
The theme of picking out goalkeepers with headers continued as the half developed with Dovbyk and Zotko doing just that for the former EURO U21 runners-up, quality of cross was far from lacking as the Sun dipped below the terraces.
Much like he had days ago, Leicester City’s Gray looked likely once again and caused most of the home nation’s attacking movements, Boothroyd’s men were about to make their opponents pay for the missed opportunities.
The affair’s opener was always going to be pivotal and the hosts would have been thankful that they were able to produce the moment of quality required to seize it.
Maddison played a delectable pass all the way through to Calvert-Lewin to play him beyond the defence, with pressure closing in from all angles, the Toffee found a finish out of the very top drawer in front of his former fans and his celebration displayed how much it meant to him.
That’s how the two nations would go in at the break and Holovko would certainly have been frustrated with the scoreline, but not his team’s performance, neither side deserved to be leading at half-time.
The Ukrainians displayed this early in the second period by launching a large offensive to try to haul themselves level and very nearly did through the likes of Lunov, Kovalenko and Pikhalyonok, to no avail.
Meanwhile, the Young Lions could have avoided a frantic final ten minutes altogether had Maddison converted from Onomah run and pass, he would be left to rue the close-call.
On 83 minutes, the visiting nation managed to equalise out of nowhere Shaparenko, just 19, getting his head on a delivery from the left, nodding it into the ground and making the ball bounce over Gunn and into the back of the net.
Keen to maintain their 100 per cent record since September, Boothroyd’s men hit back hard and luckily for them, were able to force a way through thanks to substitute Solanke.
The ex-Chelsea star was in the right place at the right time to finish a Chilwell cross past Lunin with an excellently directed header, much like at the weekend, there were more tense moments to survive in the end, but their defence held strong.
It was far from convincing for England and on reflection, the Holovko’s men perhaps deserved more than they left Steel City with, though the Three Lions may have just had a little extra quality, the difference in both of their March Internationals.
England’s young stars will now return to their domestic clubs and do not have another future as a group until next September when Boothroyd’s boys play host to their nearest Group 4 challengers the Netherlands.
Whereas, Ukraine will also have a lengthy period to reflect on the costly defeat before they go again in the ninth month of the year, facing off with outsiders Latvia, their chances of reaching Italy & San Marino ever slimmer.