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Angel Gomes showed why he is rated so highly at Manchester United. The England U-17s showcased their squad depth. Steve Cooper proved that England can play beautiful football under an English coach.
The overwhelming crowd support for Iraq at the Salt Lake Stadium on Saturday was expected. It was about the Asian connection. But these England colts have the temperament of the thoroughbreds. They just rolled over Iraq despite resting eight first team players. A 4-0 scoreline reflected their supremacy. Nya Kirby played for Callum Hudson Odoi and set up England’s first goal on 11 minutes.
He cut inside from the right, sent a low cross to the area which Daniel Loader missed. But Gomes was following the ball and found himself unmarked for a tap-in. Gomes took the captain’s armband in this game. Yesterday Cooper had spoken about his team having many leaders in the group. So a smooth transition from Joel Latibeaudiere to Gomes ensued. Latibeaudiere, by the way, had an excellent game.
His delicate chip over the Iraq defence on 21 minutes released Emile Smith Rowe, starting for Phil Foden. But the young Arsenal midfielder missed the chance. Three minutes later he was fouled inside the box by Mohammed Albaqer. Jadon Sancho wanted to place ball at the far from the spot. But Iraq stopper Ali Ibadi saved it.
The fans raised the decibel level and the Iraq boys suddenly found a spring in their step. It became an entertaining end-to-end stuff. Iraq came close to scoring twice in the first half but England held on to their 1-0 lead at half-time. Iraq brought in Mohammed Dawood after the break but England’s counter ploy outsmarted them. Dawood, though, missed an open net on 47 minutes.
The Young Lions went for the high pressing game, no mean feat in this heat and humidity. It spoke volumes of the fitness level of the players. No one suffered cramps. At times in the second half, they even played 3-5-2; arguably the most difficult formation even at the highest level.
England’s second goal came on 57 minutes following a lovely interplay between Smith Rowe and Gomes. The former doubled the advantage. They were toying with the Iraq defence despite the fact that the Asian giants were playing with five in the rearguard. Dejected fans started moving towards the exit gates.
Swathes of empty seats emerged. But the Loader show was about to begin. The Reading FC star, playing for Rhian Brewster, had missed a serious opportunity early in the first half. But when Steven Sessegnon set him up inside the area, he didn’t err. Sessegnon was also the creator for Loader’s second goal. England finished their group league campaign with 11 goals from three matches and thoroughly looked title contenders. They will play their round of 16 game against Japan on Sunday. Iraq will face Mali in the knockouts but Dawood will miss the game because he picked his second yellow card of the tournament on Sunday.
But the Asian champions will still take some positives from this match. Their goalkeeper, Ibadi, looked a serious talent. He saved his team at least on three occasions including Sancho’s penalty.
“Nine points, scoring 11 goals and conceding two; that’s very pleasing. Our first objective was to qualify (for the knockouts). To top a tough group is something very creditable. Now we do step-by-step. We are looking no further than Japan. Nobody is going to get carried away. We strive to reach even better level. We are planning for long-term as well,” Cooper said after the match. The head coach is privileged to have a squad that gives him enough room to experiment and rotate. “Although we made some changes, we showed we have 21 players who can make a difference.”
“England were very strong and well organised. We tried to change our tactics. We played with five in defence. After that we went back to 4-2-3-1. But the England team had been well prepared. They were better than us. Our players were exhausted with the high humidity. They played better and deserved to win,” Iraq coach Qahtan Al-Rubaye admitted.