Late heartbreak for City trio as England U21s are denied
- Credit: PA
Norwich City trio Max Aarons, Oliver Skipp and Todd Cantwell thought they had helped the England Under-21s pull off a memorable victory – but suffered late heartbreak in Slovenia.
Aidy Boothroyd’s squad were on course for the 2-0 win they needed, thanks to Portugal beating Switzerland elsewhere on the deciding day of Group D action in the European Under-21 Championship.
However, a brilliant long-range strike from Domogoj Bradaric in the first minute of added time left England’s young prospects crestfallen, as they had a quarter-final against Spain in late May snatched away from them despite a 2-1 win.
Aarons returned to the Young Lions' starting XI to earn his 11th cap, with only Chris Sutton (13) and Nathan Redmond (26) having more as Canaries players.
Tottenham loanee Skipp was picking up his 10th cap, with both players making their 45th appearance of the season for club and country.
It remains to be seen if they will now be able to continue their run as the only outfield players to have started every Championship game so far this season for City, having played within 48 hours of Friday’s 3pm kick-off at Preston – although Skipp was optimistic that he could manage it if required.
With several players out injured, including Everton duo Ben Godfrey and Tom Davies, Arsenal ace Emile Smith Rowe and Chelsea attacker Callum Hudson-Odoi, Boothroyd was faced into seven changes from the team which started Sunday’s 2-0 loss to the Portuguese.
Liverpool midfielder Curtis Jones was one of them and rattled the crossbar in the ninth minute as the Young Lions made a bright start, earning a very soft penalty as Eddie Nketiah tripped over a Croatia defender in the 12th minute.
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Crystal Palace winger Ebere Eze rolled home the spot-kick and qualification hopes were back on, with Portugal winning elsewhere.
Croatia did wake up though, blazing one clear chance over from 10 yards after doubling up on Aarons, and being denied by Aaron Ramsdale after Skipp had misjudged a tackle.
Jones fired wide for England and the Croats nodded a header wide from a corner just before the break, leaving it all to play for in the second half.
The Young Lions went in search of the crucial second goal they required, with an Eze free-kick well saved, Aarons teeing up Jones for a shot which deflected wide and Arsenal striker Eddie Nketiah wasting a good opening when firing straight at the keeper after Skipp had won possession.
Aarons was making better progress in attack and twice found Nketiah with low crosses, the second of which was flicked at goal but held easily enough, with Burnley winger Dwight McNeil also hitting the post from a free-kick.
The Canaries right-back was involved as England finally found their second goal as well, within two minutes of Cantwell being introduced in midfield to win his fourth cap in the 71st minute – with Skipp taking the captain’s armband as Nketiah was replaced by Rhian Brewster.
Aarons sent Brewster down the right and the Sheffield United attacker’s low cross was taken off the toes of Cantwell in the box by McNeil but fortunately he could tee up Jones, who blasted low into the bottom-left corner to spark the celebrations.
Cantwell was deployed in central midfield alongside Skipp and survived one poor lunge which a Croatia player was booked for in the closing stages, fortunately not making proper contact.
But then Bradaric took aim from the edge of the D and smashed the ball into the top-right corner superbly, with Skipp desperately trying to block the shot, to snatch qualification in the second minute of added time.
Things then turned nasty after the final whistle, with Jones shown a second yellow card for reacting furiously to something that was said, with pushing and shoving breaking out.