For long periods of England’s semi-final showdown with Israel on Wednesday night, the contest had the feel of a lethargic battle between two sets of players in desperate need of a vacation, but Lee Carsley’s starlets ultimately replicated their group-stage success over the Young Chosen Team to advance to the showpiece.
After a missed penalty best consigned to history, Morgan Gibbs-White went from villain to hero with a stunning header to open the scoring in the 42nd minute, before Cole Palmer and Cameron Archer found a way past the beleaguered Israel backline to put the result beyond any doubt.
The self-professed “big believer” Carsley could not stop waxing lyrical about his youthful troops after they became the first England side to reach the final of the Under-21 European Championships since 2009 – when a Stuart Pearce led side conceded four to Germany without reply – and they had only progressed beyond the group stage in one of the subsequent six editions.
However, one year after the Lionesses wowed the nation at Euro 2022, continental glory is once again within reach for England’s Under-21s, who have not been crowned European champions for 39 years – clinching back-to-back titles in 1982 and 1984 but failing to add to their cabinet since.
Remarkably yet to concede a single goal at Euro 2023, the James Trafford, Taylor Harwood-Bellis and Levi Colwill-marshalled defence has proven too resilient for 2021 finalists Germany and Portugal to breach this time around, but Spain will perhaps provide the toughest test of the Young Lions’ mettle.
Spain may not be able to share England’s impeccable defensive record, but what La Rojita have sometimes lacked at the back, they have more than made up for in attack, and Ukraine felt the full force of Santi Denia’s unrelenting charges during a semi-final trouncing.
Ukraine – who were not to be taken lightly after sending France packing and holding Spain to a 2-2 draw in the group phase – needed just 13 minutes to break the deadlock through Artem Bondarenko, but the Spanish slaughter soon began, as Abel Ruiz, Oihan Sancet, Antonio Blanco, Aimar Oroz and Sergio Gomez all contributed to the demolition job.