Lee Carsley’s Young Lions ended their preparations for this summer’s Under-21 Euros on a disappointing note. The friendly against Croatia was the last chance for the squad to impress before the finals in Georgia and Romania in June. However, none of the England team starting at Craven Cottage did their case for inclusion any favours with a lacklustre performance.
The game started promisingly for England, with Cole Palmer providing their best chance of the first half as he cut back for Curtis Jones, whose shot was repelled at the near post. However, against the run of play, Martin Baturina scored a sublime free-kick just before half-time to give Croatia the lead. Shortly after the break, Dion Drena Beljo scored a penalty to extend Croatia’s lead.
England responded by moving Jones out wide and Noni Madueke through the middle, but it had limited success. Carsley was forced to get creative as Flo Balogun, who he would have liked to deploy through the middle, was absent due to a tight hamstring. Balogun has since been spotted in the US, where he is also eligible to play and is being courted by the national team.
Things got worse for England when Luke Thomas was caught out of position and hauled down Matija Frigan in the box. Beljo scored the resulting penalty, leaving goalkeeper Josh Griffiths with no chance. Morgan Gibbs-White did manage to score a late consolation goal for England from the penalty spot after being taken out by the goalkeeper.
The defeat brought back memories of the final group game at the last Under-21 Euros, where England needed to win by two clear goals and hope for other results to go their way to reach the quarter-finals. However, they were denied by a long-range stunner from Croatia’s left-back in injury time.
Carsley made ten changes for the game against Croatia, with Madueke, Jones and Jacob Ramsey starting after scoring off the bench against France. Defenders Rico Lewis and Nathan Wood were also handed debuts. England dominated the early proceedings, but their lack of clinical finishing and individual brilliance cost them the game.
Overall, it was not a bad display from England, but it serves as a warning for when the real competition begins in Georgia in just over two months. Carsley’s team is much better at creating chances than Aidy Boothroyd’s side from two years ago, but they need to be more clinical in front of goal to succeed at the Under-21 Euros.