A goal from Bernardo Silva early in the second half was the only highlight from a Portuguese perspective as a brace from hometown hero Danny Ings and finely-slotted goal from Carl Jenkinson was enough to comfortably guide the English to a 3-1 victory at Turf Moor in Lancashire on Thursday night.
Although accurately billed as just a friendly, the match took on greater significance last week when it was revealed that these two teams would face off against one another in their opening fixture of Group B at next summer’s UEFA U21 Championship in the Czech Republic. A game intended to be a meaningless exhibition suddenly became a tricky one to prepare for and play as both managers had an incredible run of form to defend – both teams went undefeated in qualifying – yet didn’t want to reveal too much information to the opposition.
In the end, Rui Jorge chose to treat the friendly as a friendly and started several new faces in his usual 4-4-2 diamond formation. Tobias Figueiredo, Rafa, Bruno Fernandes, Ruben Pinto, and goalkeeper Rui Silva all won debuts for the squad and Bruma, though he’s been a fixture for the squad before, also won a spot in the starting XI following months of absence due to injury and call-ups to the senior team.
Gareth Southgate’s England on the other hand chose to take it to Portugal right from kick-off, their usual 4-3-3 formation, and, front three of Ings, Tom Ince, and Nathan Redmond in particular, wreaked havoc on the men in maroon for most of the night.
Home Turf Moor:
It only took England six minutes to find the back of the net in this contest and, perhaps unsurprisingly, it came via Burnley’s own Ings, who no doubt must’ve been inspired by his home fans and determined to make an impression.
And it was the debutant Rafa who gave him the perfect opportunity to do so following a missed interception on the right off a Redmond cross-field pass. The idea was a great one but the execution was horrid as the Portuguese LB didn’t so much as get a touch on the ball, allowing it to find Ince who’d gotten past him to his left, who, in turn, found Ings in the middle to fire it in the back of the net for an early 1-0 lead. It was Ings’ 3rd for the U21 side.
The goal served as an example of what was to come as England were well on top for the first 15 minutes. Their pressing, combined with a lack of familiarity on the Portuguese side, and, perhaps a bit of nerves, forced Jorge’s men to constantly misplace passes and lose any kind of meaningful possession.
It wasn’t until the 18th minute that Portugal found their first chance – a half chance. Fernandes collected the ball off a turnover from Will Hughes in midfield and proceeded to run towards goal after passing to Bernardo Silva. Silva found a bit of space outside the box to shoot, but, he scuffed his shot wide and it looked like nothing to get excited about. That is, until the poor shot found Fernandes on the left as he continued his run after passing. Sadly though, the flag was raised as he just ran himself into an offside position, and, Jack Butland was there for the cover regardless.
Two minutes later and Portugal’s only other half chance of the half fell to Fernandes again as this time it was Bruma intercepting a ball off Michael Keane, dancing from left to right outside of the box, and finding Fernandes with a pass that saw him shoot wide to the left. It was easily Portugal’s best five-minute spell of the match, but, they were still far from impressive.
Working Hard, or Hardly Working?
Truth be told, that was the only half-decent stretch of the first half for the Selecao. Portugal lacked intensity, creativity, movement, and focus, especially in the final third where any kind of attack generated was one on four. Defensively, Portugal was offering England all kinds of space in midfield to exploit and Hughes in particular was enjoying himself with incisive passing and well-timed runs.
At 38’ Hughes found the back of the net but couldn’t time his run well enough to avoid the offside trap, a rare occasion when Portugal’s backline looked to be in sync. Six minutes later and England doubled their advantage with a goal that counted.
In the 44th minute, Redmond found himself with space down the left side once again and cut in towards the center yet again. This time he found a surging Hughes with a penetrating pass to the left side of the box, and he, in turn, passed a ball through to the right past four Portuguese defenders to find an onrushing Jenkinson. He made no mistake neatly slotting it home for a 2-0 lead at halftime.
It was a well-deserved lead for England and deficit for Portugal to take into the break as for most of the first half the former looked like giants and the latter looked like minnows. Jorge would have to shake things up if he hoped to build on Portugal’s winning streak and avoid losing his first match in 20 months.
That’s More Like It:
Portugal would come out much stronger to start the second half and were rewarded for their newfound vigor in the 48th minute.
After Luke Garbutt committed an unforced error heading it right to Fernandes on the edge of the area, Fernandes collected and found Bruma, who then picked up Silva’s run with a through ball to his left, and Silva proceeded to fire through Butland’s legs to put Portugal on the board at 2-1.
Two minutes later Ruben Neves almost drew Portugal level as Jenkinson headed a Bruma cross right into his path, his curling 35-yarder just soaring over the net. And, shortly after that, Pinto and Fernandes combined exquisitely to almost do the same, as Pinto found Fernandes with a precise long pass that he took expertly with his right foot, spun 360 degrees to shield off a covering Garbutt, and just fired into the side netting.
It was finally starting to look like Portugal was prepared to fight for a result, as they were the side with more of an appetite following the break.
Burnley Big Boy Bags a Brace:
Portugal’s appetite was no match for the hunger of Ings however, as he would deposit his 2nd goal of the night at 58’, essentially putting the game away.
English substitute Nathaniel Chalobah came on just one minute earlier in place of the impressive Hughes, and he would make an impact straight away, picking up the ball in midfield with speed, finding Redmond to his left for a low cross into the path of Ings, who bounced the ball off his leg and into the back of the net. It was just another opportunity that Redmond and Ings found themselves in the middle of for England, as Portugal had no answer for them whatsoever.
The last half hour of the match could’ve played out so much differently had Pinto capitalized on a glorious chance two minutes later that saw him run from deep and meet a surgical pass from Bruma for a clear shot at the keeper, but, Butland covered for his napping colleague Jenkinson and came out to challenge Pinto, making a stellar save in the process.
From that point on a slew of substitutions were made by both sides and the match lost the fluidity and intensity that it had built up the prior 15 minutes. Outside of a couple of long shots from Rafa, one that flew wide right and one that dropped harmlessly into the palms of Butland, there were no other noteworthy events to report and both squads seemed to accept the result.
A match that had the potential to be a clash of the titans, in truth, turned out to be quite a dud, even for a friendly. England played quite well and was without question the better side through the 90’, but that was to be expected given the number of changes made to the Portuguese lineup. Any exhibition must of course be taken with a grain of salt.
As disappointing as it is to see Portugal’s unbeaten run come to an end, clearly Jorge has his sights set on bigger accolades, as he should. Maybe a loss was part of the plan, a strategy to lure the English into a false sense of superiority ahead of their June 18th clash. Stranger things have definitely happened.
In any event, Portugal fans shouldn’t fret. The real games begin next summer and if this team’s record in competitive fixtures holds any merit, we’ve got some quality performances to look forward to.
Butland; Jenkinson, Keane, Gibson, Garbutt (Robinson, 79’); Forster-Caskey, Hughes (Chalobah, 57’), Carroll; Ince, Ings (Bamford, 79’), Redmond (Pritchard, 73’)
Silva; Esgaio (Cancelo, 46’), Figueiredo, Venancio, Rafa (Gaspar, 84’); Neves (Carlos, 83’), Pinto (Sturgeon, 70’), Fernandes (Teixeira, 69’), B. Silva (Toze, 84’); Bruma (Mane, 70’), Pereira (Horta, 46’)
[1-0] Ings, 6’
[2-0] Jenkinson, 44’
[2-1] B. Silva, 48’
[3-1] Ings, 58’