JESSE Lingard’s impressive, late strike gave England Under-21s’ European Championship hopes a timely shot in the arm having made hard work of their clash with Sweden.
A year and a day after Roy Hodgson saw his side slide so meekly out of the World Cup, it looked like the England manager would witness the next generation fall short in Olomouc.
Gareth Southgate’s men struggled for fluency throughout a Group B tie which was heading for a draw until substitute Lingard volleyed home from the edge of the box five minutes from time, securing England a somewhat fortuitous 1-0 win. It was the Under-21s’ first finals victory in six years and boosted their hopes of progressing to the semi-finals ahead of Wednesday’s encounter with Italy.
However, Southgate will be all too aware that better will be required against the Azzurini, with a decent performance tailing off dramatically after half-time.
Harry Kane and Will Hughes had England’s best first-half chances, with Sweden threatening to grab a winner after Carl Jenkinson fired into the side-netting. England were running out of ideas as they hunted for a winner, only for Lingard, on for the injured Alex Pritchard, to strike the decisive blow by volleying home.
To the credit of the vocal Swedish fans, they still continued to back their players just as they had done from the outset at the Ander Stadium.
The only time they were quietened early on was when Luke Garbutt’s fourth-minute curling effort from the edge of the box snuck just over.
Sweden’s tactic was clearly to get behind the England backline and that fact looked to be unnerving the centre-back pairing of Liam Moore and Ben Gibson.
It led to a few hairy moments but England were also to do that themselves, with Patrik Carlgren darting off his line to prevent Nathan Redmond meeting Hughes’ threaded pass.
The first half, unlike England’s defeat by Portugal, was one of few chances and it took 20 minutes for Sweden to muster their first attempt.
Simon Tibbling’s effort was followed by a hopeful Oscar Hiljemark strike, before the former forced Jack Butland into a save after John Guidetti all too easily got past Nathaniel Chalobah.
That moment appeared to jolt Southgate’s men into life – for a while at least – and they had their best chances of the opening period soon after. Having found space down the right, Jenkinson whipped in a low cross which Kane directed just wide with a diving header at the far post.
Danny Ings came on for Hughes at half-time in a bid to change things and quickly proved a nuisance.
There was a rare flash of their quality in the 65th minute, with decent team play ending in Kane cutting back for Jenkinson, only for the right-back’s close-range strike to hit the side-netting.
It was a let-off Sweden appeared determined to capitalise on, with Gibson fortunate not to turn in a corner from Ludwig Augustinsson, who had called England “overrated” on the eve of the game.
Kiese Thelin saw penalty claims against Luke Garbutt ignored as the match edged towards the last 15 minutes, with Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s introduction in place of Tom Carroll the last throw of the dice by Southgate.
Ings was furious to see penalty appeals rejected after contact with Joseph Baffo and, after Mikael Ishak had an effort at the other end, Redmond tried his luck from distance, forcing Carlgren to tip around the post.
It proved the catalyst to the match’s decisive moment.
Garbutt sent in the corner which the Swedish goalkeeper flapped at, with the ball falling for Lingard on the edge of the box, cushioning the ball with his chest before volleying home to the delight of the English contingent scattered around the stadium.
Sweden U21: Carlgren, Lindelof, Baffo, Helander, Augustinsson, Khalili, Hiljemark, Lewicki, Tibbling, Guidetti, Thelin. Subs: Rinne, Hrgota, Zeneli, Ishak, Olsson, Holmen, Larsson, Quaison, Konate, Gustafsson, Linde.
England U21: Butland, Jenkinson, Moore, Gibson, Garbutt, Redmond, Hughes, Chalobah, Pritchard, Carroll, Kane. Subs: Bond, Forster-Caskey, Stones, Ward-Prowse, Keane, Lingard, Ings, Afobe, Chambers, Targett, Loftus-Cheek, Bettinelli.