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Men’s football England top Group C despite underwhelming performance against Slovenia

England 0-0 Slovenia
by Layth Yousif
at Cologne Stadium 

THE increasingly beleaguered Gareth Southgate is fearful the atmosphere around England is souring after empty plastic pint cups were thrown at him after the disappointing goalless draw against Slovenia.

Another underwhelming performance from Southgate’s Three Lions led to a number of travelling supporters booing the side at the final whistle, with at least three cups hurled at the under-fire boss in a dose of spite from a section of travelling support. 

After a sweltering, sweaty evening in heatwave Cologne, the only cheers you could hear at the end of 90 minutes was the Slovenia fans celebrating also qualifying – in third, behind Denmark, after Serbia failed to beat the Scandinavians in the other match in Group C.

At the other end of the ground from the delighted Slovenians, where the main contingent of England fans were massed, Southgate and his side went to acknowledge their support, but were met with a mixed reaction, including boos and objects thrown. 

Speaking after the match, a drained looking Southgate admitted: “I understand it but I’m not going to back away from it. The most important thing is that we stay with the team.

“I understand the narrative towards me. That’s better for the team than it being towards them, but it is creating an unusual environment to operate in.

“I’ve not seen any other team qualify and receive similar [treatment]. I’m not going to back away from it.”

Despite England already qualifying for the knock-out round thanks to Spain’s second string easing past Albania in Dusseldorf on Friday evening, more was expected than a frustrating goalless draw against their opponents ranked a lowly 57th in the world – even if a fine Slovenia kicked-off unbeaten in their last eight matches, including creditable draws against Denmark and Serbia in this tournament.

Prior to the start coach Matjaz Kek’s side had only failed to score in one of their last 22 international matches, with his team losing only two of their last 16 competitive matches - but started the clash without a win in their five games in the European Championships.

On a sweltering evening in Cologne it was all to play for – especially with Austria topping their group after beating Netherlands 3-2 earlier in the afternoon, leaving France to finish second after their 1-1 draw vs Poland. You couldn’t help pondering on the dawning realisation that one half of the Euro 2024 draw featured the heavyweights of France, Spain, Portugal and Germany. With England in the other half of the draw.

However, as long-suffering England fans know, games aren’t won on paper. 

Not least when early Slovenia’s summer target for top Premier League clubs, Benjamin Sesko, should have done better with a headed chance, moments after a booming rendition of God Save the King from three quarters of the stadium.

Southgate made one change from the insipid draw against the Danes in Frankfurt, Conor Gallagher replacing Trent Alexander-Arnold, the Chelsea midfielder becoming Declan Rice’s third defensive partner in the last four matches.

Gallahger’s energy was apparent, attempting to influence early proceedings with the most impressive scurrying. 

Albeit to scant discernible effect as Kek’s side dominated the opening stages, bar VAR correctly disallowing Bukayo Saka’s tap-in for offside earlier in the move. 

As the sun dropped and the intense temperatures of the day cooled somewhat, a laboured England ponderously probed forward, prompted by the increasingly redoubtable centre-back pairing of John Stones and Marc Guehi – who for this correspondent had been the side’s most impressive performer so far in Germany.

On the half hour mark, the hitherto anonymous Harry Kane fired off a low shot that Slovenia’s keeper Jan Oblak gathered. Moments later the Atletico Madrid shotstopper kept out Phil Foden’s flighted free-kick, as Southgate’s side searched for an opener.

Along a crowded left flank, the right-footed Kieran Trippier cut inside to unleash a low, curling shot six minutes before the interval, but the team couldn’t find a breakthrough.

With England’s nearly-fit left-back Luke Shaw on the bench, the thought occurred that Southgate’s mix and match along the left channel might be, mercifully, nearing an end.

Another uninspiring experiment that ended was Gallagher next to Rice, which was called to an abrupt halt after only 45 minutes – with Southgate swapping Gallagher for Manchester United teenage starlet Kobbie Mainoo at half time.

Despite their underwhelming appearance as a defensive pair during England’s’ 1-0 loss to Iceland at Wembley at the end of May, Southgate’s intention for Mainoo to dovetail with Rice - in a bid to play between the lines with the Arsenal man in a slightly more advanced role – was full of positive intentions.

Even if it was rather perplexing that Southgate should still be tinkering with such a vital position three matches into this tournament.  

As the England fans massed behind the goal boomed out ‘The Great Escape’ it was Crystal Palace defender Guehi who had an escape of his own, when he grabbed Slovenia forward Andraz Sporar, deservedly earning a yellow card from French referee Clement Turpin, who it had to be said had an excellent game as the man in black, or luminous yellow.

The fans cheered still further when the sharp Cole Palmer came on for a tiring Saka. 

The roof would have come off this atmospheric stadium if Rice’s shot had flown into the net with 15 minutes remaining. As it would have done had the lively Cole’s late effort not been gathered by Oblak after a sweeping move.

As the clock ticked down, England sealed top spot with five points, a place ahead of Denmark in second, and creditable Slovenia a spot behind, who also qualify as one of the best third place sides.

England will now play their round of 16 tie in Gelsenkirchen on Sunday, potentially against the Netherlands. 

As ever, England’s magnificent fans have been left frustrated at their team’s efforts on the pitch.

A tired looking Southgate added at the end of the match: “I’m not going to back down from going over and thanking the fans who were brilliant during the game. 

“They might feel differently towards me, but for me we will only succeed if we’re together.”

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