England Edge Past Romania in Final Match Before Euros

England 1-0 Romania

  • England won their final game before Euro 2020 by seeing off a stubborn Romania at Middlesbrough
  • Captain Marcus Rashford scored the winner from the spot, before Jordan Henderson missed a penalty of his own

Did England inspire confidence? It’s hard to tell. Two victories from two ahead of the European Championships certainly places them on the right side of pre-tournament form. But there were a handful of timely reminders in the Three Lions’ narrow win over Romania of just what could go wrong against the continent’s best sides over the next month. It is an uber-talented squad that Gareth Southgate is leading into these finals, but tournaments are not won purely on talent. History favours the pragmatist.

Southgate’s hands were tied ahead of the Austria match on Wednesday, with half of his squad unavailable due to their involvement in the European club finals. Only Manchester United’s players were given match involvement back at the Riverside Stadium against Romania. And even then, Harry Maguire is injured and Mason Greenwood left the squad last week through injury. Once again, the manager’s team-sheet largely picked itself.

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It meant there were starts for standby players Ben White, Ben Godfrey and James Ward-Prowse. Centre-back Godfrey was played at right-back. You’d have got good odds on that. In goal, there was a debut for West Bromwich Albion’s Sam Johnstone, who would go on to inspire England to victory. His side were by no means under the cosh constantly, but a number of smart stops — and one absolute wonder-save — ensured he earned a clean-sheet in his first cap.

For a while, a very makeshift England looked as though they might never find a breakthrough all evening. Johnstone was doing his job when called upon, but where was England’s invention? A lot has been said in recent weeks about just how much Harry Maguire’s injury could hamper England’s plans this summer. Not two minutes had been played when Tyrone Mings tripped and conceded a corner under barely any pressure. An early reminder that against the best sides, Southgate’s team are only ever one silly error away from conceding a goal. The tighter the game, the more a single goal can matter.

A lot is expected of Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho this summer. Both came close to scoring in the opening exchanges as England tried to move up the gears. Sancho cut inside onto his right and curled the ball onto the bar. England’s support gasped in disappointment that the net hadn’t bulged. There would be a lot more of that to come.

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The industrious Ward-Prowse seemed to be playing out of his skin — hoping to replace the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold as the 26th man. It was from his free-kick on half-an-hour that striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed against the bar. Powered by Grealish’s risk and Ward-Prowse’s vision, England belatedly kicked on. But they weren’t necessarily predestined to win this game of cat and mouse. Romania thrashed England’s U21s at the Euros a couple of years ago and posed a threat on the counter here. When the last line of defence was needed, it duly did its job. Johnstone saved well with his feet from Deian Sorescu.

So England sauntered in at the break having threatened to impress in the Teesside sun. A second-half as uneventful would not have impressed the fans at the Riverside, though. When they did reappear, they came out one Kalvin Phillips down. On in his place was the returning Jordan Henderson, featuring for club or country for the first time since mid-February.

Henderson’s selection is controversial given his recent lack of game-time. The view is understandable, but he drove England on right from the off. The second half performance, all round, was much improved. Within two minutes, Calvert-Lewin had almost scored from a Ward-Prowse free-kick, but for a point-blank Florin Niță save.

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Everton’s Calvert-Lewin was physical enough to create England’s next golden opening. His strength to hold off his man and knock the ball into space with his head allowed Marcus Rashford — captaining his country on the night for the first time — to run into acres of luscious green space. The Manchester United man dragged his eventual shot wide, before taking a breather following a solo counterattack, and trotting back into place as the hosts waited for their next chance to pounce.

Romania have been a bogey team of England’s in the past. The eastern Europeans hadn’t been beaten in any of their last seven meetings, dating back to 1970. But this Romania does not have what the great footballing nation once had. England have Jack Grealish — his jaw-dropping dribbling ability bamboozled Tiberiu Căpuşă and caused a tangle in the box. The Premier League’s most-fouled player for two years straight was down again. Penalty England.

Skipper Rashford assumed responsibility and filled himself with confidence at just the right time by slotting the ball away calmly. England’s wait for the elusive goal was over. Yet this was still a contest. England’s latest reminder of how teams go out of tournaments came when they allowed the ball to run for two Romania shots close in, only a couple of minutes after Rashford’s spot-kick. First Alexandru Cicâldău was denied, then the night’s clearest moment of sheer quality. The debutant Johnstone pulled off a truly world-class save to deny Andrei Ivan’s well-struck and well-placed rebound. England players immediately congratulated their keeper.

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Johnstone told EnglandFootball.org after the match that playing for England was “a proud moment for myself, for my family, and everyone that’s been with me on this journey. You do get quite emotional when the national anthem is playing and everyone is singing it.”

West Brom’s No1 then admitted he was “just so happy to make my debut, make a few saves, and keep a clean-sheet,” before turning his attention to the other end of the pitch. “We did find it a little bit difficult to break them down at times,” he admitted of his teammates. “There were times that we got through and their keeper pulled off loads of great saves and they defended well.”

One such save from Florin Niță followed Johnstone’s own stunning stop almost immediately. Once Dominic Calvert-Lewin was lugged to the ground on the counter and won England their second penalty, he was again denied the chance to take it himself and grab another international goal. Instead, up stepped a man without a single one in nearly 60 caps: Jordan Henderson. Dreaming of a first for his country and a perfect return to match-involvement, the Liverpool skipper was denied by the keeper. Following England’s ultimately successful shootout win over Colombia in 2018, it was his second penalty miss for his country. Pre-Euros warning number three: penalties matter at major tournaments. They simply have to hit the back of the net.

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The late cameos of Jesse Lingard, Ollie Watkins and 17-year-old Jude Bellingham helped keep the hosts’ thirst for a second goal ticking along until the final whistle. The teenager so nearly managed it too, but his header from Watkins’s cross was blocked superbly by former Tottenham defender Vlad Chiricheș. England’s final chance of a rather indifferent night but a much-improved second 45 came from a late corner. Watkins stabbed wide from two yards out following a corner knocked on by Ben Godfrey. Again, England should take note of the number of chances they failed to convert. There simply isn’t this margin for error against the Belgiums, Portugals or Frances of this world. England will have to see off at least one of them if they’re to go all the way.

Gareth Southgate was less able to enjoy and learn from his preparation matches than other coaches at this summer’s tournament. His was a unique situation, allowing precisely no opportunity for his preferred line-up to play together before next Sunday’s Croatia showdown. He and England’s players have done all they can now. Their immediate fate rests in the hands of which Harry Kane, Jordan Pickford and England will turn up a week from now. And, of course, which Luka Modrić. No more auditions.

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