England ensured they will go into Euro 2020 on the back on consecutive wins after beating Romania 1-0 in their final warm-up fixture at the Riverside Stadium.
Despite a subdued display, England struck the crossbar twice during the first half through a Dominic Calvert-Lewin header and a Jadon Sancho shot.
A run into the box by Jack Grealish earned his side the chance to take the lead from the penalty spot and it was England’s captain for the evening Marcus Rashford who kept his cool to slot the ball into the bottom corner.
Romania gave England a test and debutant goalkeeper Sam Johnstone was called into action on several occasions, including when he was forced into an incredible save to deny Andrei Ivan from point-blank range in the second half.
Jordan Henderson had the chance to double England’s lead from the spot after Calvert-Lewin was fouled, but the Liverpool captain saw his effort saved by goalkeeper Florin Nita.
Here are five things we learned from England’s final warm-up fixture…
Ward-Prowse stakes claim
Southgate said pre-match that he remained “open-minded” about who to choose as his replacement for the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold, insisting the Romania fixture was an opportunity for all of those on the fringes of his original 26-man group, namely Ben Godfrey, Ben White and James Ward-Prowse.
On paper, right-back Godfrey might have been the one Southgate had his eye on in particular. A versatile player who would fit in nicely in a three-man defence, Godfrey did not look as comfortable out on the right flank in a back four, however, especially when Jadon Sancho tucked inside.
Ben White’s passing was good and the Leeds defender looked assured in the heart of England’s defence. On this showing, he looked more established than Tyrone Mings, who was caught out a couple of times in the first half.
But there is no doubt that the player who stood out most was Ward-Prowse. The midfielder linked up nicely with Grealish and won the ball back well in advanced areas. His quality from set-pieces goes without saying but it was on display with his superb delivery for Calvert-Lewin chances in each half.
It may not be a like-for-like replacement, but given England’s depth at right-back and the concerns over Henderson’s fitness, it was made pretty clear that Ward-Prowse should get the nod to replace Alexander-Arnold in England’s final squad.
Southgate’s next test
England may have one of the strongest squads at Euro 2020, but the challenge facing Gareth Southgate one week ahead of his side’s opening game was made clear but some of the names missing from Sunday’s win over Romania.
Several players key to Southgate’s plans, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Reece James, Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell, will go into the Euros without playing a minute for England due to their involvement in the Champions League final – and that’s without mentioning Harry Maguire’s injury-enforced absence.
Clearly, that’s not ideal preparation and there will be few, if any, teams that will have fielded players not in their Euro squad in their final warm-up fixture.
Perhaps understandably, England looked disjointed given the absences and new faces, and they’ll be another team next week once some of Southgate’s first-choice regulars return to the team.
All of that should be taken into account throughout the group stages. Winners of major tournaments rarely get everything right from the start and England, particularly this year, will be required to grow throughout the tournament.
So while this match against Romania will be framed as England’s final test before the Croatia fixture, the real challenge for Southgate will be how he accesses which of those returning players to pick in his starting line-up in a week’s time, and which to keep from these warm-up fixtures.
Sancho and Rashford make encouraging returns
There was a lot of anticipation ahead of Jadon Sancho’s return to the England team, having missed their last four fixtures through injury. The Borussia Dortmund forward is one of England’s in-form players and is the favourite to start on England’s right this summer.
It was interesting, therefore, to see how keen Sancho was to drift inside, often looking to occupy a central position alongside Jack Grealish. The link-up with Godfrey wasn’t quite there, which may have contributed to Sancho’s positioning.
Sancho did offer glimpses, though, such as when he struck the crossbar with a curling shot, but they rarely came from the right. You could imagine the winger looking more comfortable alongside a full-back he can combine with, however, and Reece James comes to mind in particular.
On the other side, Marcus Rashford made his first appearance in seven international fixtures. He was much more involved than Sancho, providing more of an out-ball for Ward-Prowse to switch play to. He had the beating of his full-back on a couple of occasions and looked far more sharper than he did during the Europa League final – and his penalty will do his confidence the world of good following that difficult night in Gdansk.
Grealish shines again
Given the uncertainty over some of those players to come back, as well as his performances over England’s two warm-up fixtures, Jack Grealish should expect to start England’s opener on 13 June.
The Aston Villa midfielder was arguably England’s best performer, once again, against Romania. A couple of his touches lit up a largely drab showing and he was central to everything positive in England’s display.
It may have been a soft penalty, but Grealish’s turn and then one-two with Rashford, which led to his driving run inside, was an example of how he can seize a game by the scruff of its neck by providing that attacking spark.
Of course, he is in direct competition with two players who also have those qualities, Phil Foden and Mason Mount, but Grealish has been delivered over the past two games and has earned his chance. It would be extremely harsh on him if he was dropped for the meeting against Croatia next week.
Henderson back to prove fitness
Jordan Henderson came on at half-time for his first appearance since 20 February, with the Liverpool captain slotting into a midfield position alongside Ward-Prowse.
His second-half penalty miss will attract much of the attention, and it is perhaps a useful thing for Southgate to learn in case his side are called into any penalty shootouts during the tournament, but the most important thing for Henderson and Southgate will have been simply getting back onto the pitch.
There was little in Henderson’s performance, however, that would have convinced Southgate to start him over Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips, Jude Bellingham, or indeed Ward-Prowse if he makes the cut. Henderson’s influence will likely grow throughout the tournament as he gets more minutes in his legs on the training field and Southgate will still back the 30-year-old to play a vital part in his tournament plans.
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