“We're doing a lot of work on the mentality of players and being able to handle pressure situations,” Steve Cooper had said when he was asked how he is looking to improve an already talented bunch of English youngsters.
His boys definitely passed the pressure test against Mexico when they managed to hold on to a slender lead to take all three points at the Vivekananda Yuba Bharati Krirangan stadium (formerly known as Salt Lake Stadium) on Wednesday. Mexico gave England a run for their money when they put up an inspiring second-half performance to gift the Kolkata crowd a five-goal thriller.
England began the match from where they had left off against Chile – hogging possession, dominating the midfield channels and creating chances through their wide players – Jadon Sancho on the left and Phil Foden on the right.
Rhian Brewster had the ball in the net as early as the sixth minute, although the goal was rightly disallowed for offside. Foden and George McEachran, with their telepathic understanding, flummoxed the Mexican midfield which failed to retain possession for sustained periods. The El Tri defense, however, was on the top of their game and had cut out the mistakes which hurt them against Iraq.
Playing a narrow back four and denying Sancho space and time in and around the eighteen-yard box, Mexico had managed to shut out the dynamic Borussia Dortmund winger. Also, Steve Cooper’s conservative approach as a measure of respect to the Mexican side’s ability meant the otherwise excellent Jonathan Panzo didn’t make as many overlapping runs on the left wing to provide Sancho some support.
Callum Hudson-Odoi had a quiet evening as well, but his strike partner Rhian Brewster, playing as an inside forward on the right flank, ensured England took a 1-0 lead into the half-time. His well-placed free-kick from twenty-five yards was just beyond Cesar Lopez’s reach who had not put another foot wrong in the entire first half of play.
England took complete control of the game ten minutes into the second half, throughFoden’s sublime volley and Sancho’s genius playmaking skills. Foden’s technically astute passing and vision to set up goalscoring chances for his teammates even impressed Pep Guardiola so much that the Manchester City manager fast-tracked the 17-year-old to the senior squad, but one of Foden’s most under-rated qualities is his ability to pop up and exploit the spaces between the opposition’s defence and midfield.
England’s second came at one such moment when Foden was completely unmarked in the penalty box and Sancho’s cross found him. The crown jewel of this English team, Sancho was at the heart of the third goal again, winning a penalty after Mexico failed to contend his dribbling runs into the box and then converting the said penalty in an undramatic fashion.
Just as it seemed that England might run away with the game, inflicting further misery on the CONCACAF champions, Mexico challenged to stage a dramatic comeback. Diego Lainez single-handedly brought back the two-time FIFA U-17 World Cup winners into the game with two goals.
The Club America forward, already being scouted by some of Europe’s footballing powerhouses, added to his credentials by creating goals from nowhere. Jesus Perez’s substitution as Mexico chased an equalizer, further pegged back England into their own defensive half as the Young Lions scrambled to make clearances.
Angel Gomes and Brewster remained isolated for most of the latter periods of the game as England vehemently defended their one-goal lead. In spite of the presence of creative attacking talents like Lainez and Roberto de La Rosa, this Mexican side lacks a genuine goalscorer and their struggles in set-piece deliveries once again shone through as they missed a few easy chances.
The 40,000-odd Yuba Bharati crowd which had been enthralled by England’s sublime football in the first hour of play had completely swayed in Mexico’s favour in the last thirty minutes, cheering Lainez’s every touch, as Kolkata realized they could witness one of the most brilliant comebacks in the history of the U-17 World Cup.
Eventually, England held on and earned all three points, deservedly so. The sheer relief on the faces of the English youngsters and the disappointment in the body language of the Mexicans suggested the game was as close as the scoreline suggested.
“We want to be as successful as we can. But whatever happens, it is a learning opportunity for the players. Ultimately the aim is to get senior internationals in the best position possible to represent their country at major tournaments. This is a milestone along the way and hopefully when the players get back on the plane, whenever that is, they will be better England players for it,” Steve Cooper had said ahead of the match against Mexico. If the Young Lions continue playing the way they did on Wednesday, they are not getting back on a plane to England anytime soon.
Updated Date: Oct 12, 2017 16:15 PM