England's next-gen flaunt their steel
Nothing summed up the quiet confidence of the England Under-17 team in the course of their penalty shootout in the Under-17 World Cup round of 16 encounter against Japan at the Salt Lake Stadium on Tuesday better than the body language of their goalkeeper, Manchester City's Curtis Anderson.
England, who went first after the match finished goalless in normal time, had already scored through Rhian Brewster, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Phil Foden, when Anderson faced defender Hinata Kida for the third Japanese kick. Kida's team-mates Yukinari Sugawara and Taisei Miyashiro had beaten Anderson by shooting low to his right and then through the centre, with the England number one diving correctly once and going the other way the next time.
Off Kida's kick, Anderson saved by keeping his shape till as late as possible. He then calmly walked up to the penalty spot himself, and slotted the ball low to the bottom-left corner.
"We believed in our players, and we loved the body language on and off the field during the shootout," England coach Steve Cooper would say later. "Our work with teams is to develop all parts of international football, and a shootout is one of them. The longer they stay in the system, the more they will get opportunities to be in situations like this. There are loads of ways to win a game, and a penalty shootout is just one."
In many respects, the players held it together better than some members of the support staff, who were filming the game for analysis, and could be seen chewing their nails and going 'oh no, not on penalties again' with their expressions.
Of course, on paper it should arguably have never needed the lottery of penalties in the first place. England's starting line-up had four players from Chelsea and three players from Manchester City, including Anderson. They were led on the night by Angel Gomes of Manchester United. They faced an opposition that had scored six in their opening match against Honduras, but were win-less in two games since. England also had the benefit of having played all of their league games at the Salt Lake Stadium, while Japan's only experience of playing in front of 50000 fans had ended in a 1-1 draw with New Caledonia.
Borussia Dortmund's Jadon Sancho was a missing link from the free-scoring England of the group stages, though Hudson-Odoi was a huge influence on the left flank on the night. With Foden pulling the strings on the right, there were lots of openings in the first half for Liverpool striker Brewster, but the Japanese defence was organised to stick together in groups of four and close all spaces down whenever an English player got on to the ball.
The second half, and the last quarter of an hour in particular, saw a stunning reversal of momentum in the game, with Japan's attacking line of Takefusa Kubo and Taisei Miyashiro putting in some pacy runs along the flanks. It was here that the defence was led superbly by Chelsea's Jonathan Panzo, filling in at left-back.
"If you're not scoring, it's important not to concede. This is a really tough tournament, and you need a bit of luck. Japan will feel hard done by, especially the way they played in the second half," said Cooper, whose team now travel to Goa to face U.S. in the quarter-finals, a stage they have reached in the past only on two occasions -- 2011 and 2015.
"We're aware of our record of only having made the quarters before, and as we see it, we have equaled that and there's good recognition of that. We work with the U-17s in two ways - one is obviously to be successful in any tournament we enter, but also to develop in the long term."
In going from a sleek scoring machine in the three league matches, where they scored 11 goals and conceded just two, to a team capable of carrying out a tense penalty shootout, long considered the bogey of England teams in international football at senior level, Cooper's colts have already suggested their increasing maturity over the fortnight in India. They cannot get too far ahead of themselves though, as a tricky quarter-final against U.S. could then be followed by a last-four clash against Germany or Brazil.
Cooper himself can't wait to return to the Salt Lake Stadium - which had an attendance exceeding 53000 on Tuesday - for the final on October 28.
"We'd love to come back to Kolkata. This is just an amazing atmosphere -- the attendance is so good for all the teams, not just England."
That massive crowd gave a rousing reception to the England team after Nya Kirby slotted the ball away for a fifth successive conversion for his team.
Kolkata approves of England, and would love to see more of them before the World Cup is over.