England had a dismal 2013 finals campaign but, after watching them beat Germany, Simon Hart says there is plenty of cause of optimism as they shape up for this summer.
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This past international week could hardly have gone better for Gareth Southgate and his England players. First they had a taste of what to expect at this summer's UEFA European Under-21 Championship by travelling to the Czech Republic and beating the tournament hosts 1-0. Then they earned an exciting 3-2 comeback success against Germany in front of a 30,178 crowd in Middlesbrough.
Factor in November's victory over Portugal and that makes it three wins out of three against fellow finalists since qualification concluded, raising hopes that England can exorcise the ghosts of their dismal 2013 campaign in Israel, where they lost all three matches. "We've had a couple of meetings and we've said the feeling was horrible," said Nathan Redmond, one of the survivors of two years ago. There are good reasons for feeling optimistic that Southgate's side will fare considerably better in June.
Goals, goals, goals
The forwards in England's squad in Israel arrived at those finals with not a single Premier League goal between them in 2012/13. The forwards in the team eliminated early in Denmark in 2011 scored a combined 15 top-flight strikes in 2010/11. Southgate hopes to call on Harry Kane, Saido Berahino and Danny Ings, who have already managed 40 between them this term.
The fact that they beat Germany without Kane and Berahino spoke volumes for England's strength in depth – in their absence, Ings led the line with typically good movement. Yet the presence of Kane in particular on that plane to the Czech Republic would be a massive statement of intent after the Tottenham Hotspur FC player's first senior goal last week.
No matter which players make the trip, there is a strong sense of a group all pulling in the right direction. After the Germany game Redmond pointed out the list of possible senior internationals eligible for these finals – including Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw – but noted that whoever made the squad, one telling asset was their togetherness.
"Sure it's about talent at times, but if we don't work hard for each other it is not going to be the same," said the Norwich City FC winger. "Even when they go up and come back down they still know what's required to play for the Under-21s."
Confidence and character
The flowing move that led to England's winner against Germany showed that Southgate's team can play good football. They can also battle, according to captain and match-winner James Ward-Prowse. Germany's starting XI had over 350 more top-flight appearances behind them than England yet the home side matched them for spirit and determination.
"We've faced scenarios where we may be down and out and have shown great character," said Ward-Prowse. "Character is the ultimate thing that is going to get us across the finish line in the summer." That said, they will want to eradicate the kind of slow start they produced on Monday when they stood off and let Germany control the first 25 minutes.
Competition for places
Two notable performances against Germany came from players staking a late claim for a finals place. Jesse Lingard suffered a knee injury on his Manchester United FC debut on the opening day of the season, yet since recovering he has been shining on loan at Derby County FC and he caught the eye in a wide attacking role against Germany – capping his performance with a first U21 goal. "He is a very creative player who likes to get on the ball in the pocket [of space] and try to create chances," Ward-Prowse noted.
Another player to catch the eye was Alex Pritchard, the Tottenham player currently on loan at Brentford FC. He made only two brief substitute appearances in qualifying but started – and played well – in Prague and then came off the bench to set up Redmond for the goal that made it 2-2 in Middlesbrough.
Olomouc, England's base for June's finals, will hold no surprises after Southgate's squad spent three nights there last week. They even trained on the pitch at the Andrův Stadión, venue for their Group B games against Sweden and Italy. "It was a fantastic idea from the manager," said Ward-Prowse. "We will go over in the summer knowing the environment and the hotel, which is great preparation. It was great to get a feel for the stadium." England might also have made a head start in generating local support after arranging a meeting with 30 youngsters from underprivileged backgrounds, who received autographs and memorabilia from Southgate's players.