One by one England’s players dropped to the ground in despair on the final whistle in Cesena. The curse of Romania and the European Championships had struck again. Over, out and, unlike their opening defeat against France, this time there is no excuse.
Aidy Boothroyd’s team were soundly beaten by Romania as their under-21s campaign came to an abrupt and humiliatingly swift end. A stoppage time howler from Dean Henderson was the pivotal moment as the England goalkeeper allowed a Florinel Coman shot to slip through his fingers and restore Romania’s lead. England had previously levelled twice in quick succession but there was no reprieve this time, only further misery as Coman struck again. Questions will rightly be asked of England’s head coach and their players after this latest tournament failure.
Changes were expected from the France defeat with Boothroyd wanting to utilise resources in the oppressive heat of an intensive tournament but Phil Foden’s omission represented a huge risk. An unnecessary one for a must-win game too, given the Manchester City midfielder started 14 games for his club this season and was the only player able to hurt England’s opponents on Tuesday. “Managing his minutes,” was how the England head coach explained the absence of Foden, one of five changes in total. Romania coach Matei Radoi took no such precautions as he started the same XI that defeated Croatia 4-1 in their opening fixture.
It did not take long for the risk to become a mistake. England were slow, predictable and careless in possession and struggled to create a first-half chance of note from open play. Romania, by contrast, were sharp and incisive on the counterattack and opened an unprotected England defence almost at will in the early exchanges. They created three fine chances in the opening 10 minutes alone with the attacking trio of Ianis Hagi, George Puscas and Dennis Man wreaking havoc.
Romania were backed by a raucous and sizeable support, 1,000 of who arrived at the stadium in a procession from Cesena city centre. Uefa issued a warning after 30 minutes that the game would be suspended should any more flares be ignited. The Romania team were just as problematic for England.
Dean Henderson was forced into an improvised save with his feet when Hagi shot from distance from Romania’s first break. The Manchester United goalkeeper then thwarted Andrei Ivan at his near post following a flowing move involving Man and Puscas. From the resulting corner, headed back into the area by Puscas, Ivan had a gilt-edged opportunity to put Romania ahead as he ghosted clear of a static England defence only to volley badly wide from eight yards out. Henderson’s quick hat-trick of saves arrived when Man, once again unmarked on the right, tested him from inside the area.
Hagi’s ability to orchestrate quick, purposeful attacks will have pleased his watching father, the great Gheorghe, although he was helped in that regarded by the absence of Hamza Choudhury, serving a two-match suspension for his dismissal against France. England lacked a natural replacement for the defensive midfielder. The more forward-thinking Kieran Dowell filled the role here but, without support from Mason Mount or the erratic James Maddison, England were frequently over-run.
Boothroyd’s team created precious little before the break too. Harvey Barnes was quiet on the left and replaced by Ryan Sessegnon at half-time and it was not until first half stoppage time that England managed a shot on target. Romania goalkeeper Ionut Radu could only parry Mount’s low drive but Alexandru Pascanu cleared with a diving header before Dominic Calvert-Lewin could pounce.
Sessegnon’s involvement lasted all of 12 minutes before he was forced off with a hamstring injury. That paved the way for the belated introduction of Foden, who almost scored within two minutes with a low, angled drive from Jay Dasilva’s pass that Radu touched onto his near post. It was a reminder of the quality and invention that the City midfielder possesses and England lacked without him. Not that the reminder was necessary.
Dowell had gone close before Foden’s arrival with a free header from a Maddison corner that Pascanu headed off the line. Moments after striking the post Foden created a good opening for Maddison on the edge of the Romania area. Radu saved well from the Leicester playmaker’s precise shot. Demarai Gray should have done better with an inviting rebound that he dragged across a crowded goalmouth.
England’s second half display was a vast improvement and Calvert-Lewin also went close with a towering header from Dasilva’s left-wing cross.England’s problems mounted when Jonjoe Kenny conceded a late penalty with a clumsy challenge on Coman. The Romania substitute was too sharp for the Everton full-back when he collected Vlad Dragomir’s cross and twisted inside Kenny, who caught him with a late challenge confirmed by a VAR review. Puscas gave Henderson the eyes before rolling a confident spot-kick into the bottom corner.
Gray brought Boothroyd’s side renewed hope with a fine equaliser three minutes later, cutting inside Dragomir and curling an unstoppable finish beyond Radu. Calvert-Lewin could have won it with two late headers. Hagi thought he had with a clinical finish inside Henderson’s right hand corner after seizing on a mistake by Fikayo Tomori. In a breathless finish Tammy Abraham equalised swiftly for England once again, collecting Mount’s cross on his chest before converting inside the far post. But Romania, and late England errors, were not finished.
There appeared no danger when Coman took aim from distance and drove a low shot straight at Henderson. The goalkeeper, so impressive on Tuesday, fumbled horribly, however, and the ball squirmed over the line to send England to another defeat and an early exit. Coman the destroyer completed England’s misery with an outstanding half-volley from 25 yards moments later.