FLO BALOGUN’S best Gary Lineker impression was enough to seal England’s qualification for next summer’s Under-21 Euros.
The Arsenal whizkid grabbed a brace from a combined total of less than ten yards out against a dogged Albania.
Folarin Balogun scored twice as England’s U21s beat Albania 3-0Credit: Getty
Aston Villa’s Cameron Archer was also on target in the convincing winCredit: Reuters
It was reminiscent of our nation’s greatest fox-in-the-box Lineker, famed for his close-range finishes, and set Lee Carsley’s men on their way to the 2023 showpiece in Romania and Georgia.
Sub Cameron Archer of Aston Villa made it three with virtually his first touch, while the visitors went down to ten men for one brutal foul too many.
England now have an unassailable lead at the top of their group on 22 points with two games left to play, away to Kosovo on Friday and home to Slovenia in Huddersfield on Monday.
Czech Republic can also reach that number of points if they win their final match on Monday.
But they cannot reach the group summit due to their head-to-head record with England, who beat them home and away.
All in all it made for a very satisfying first qualifying campaign for head coach Carsley.
But he will know, having assisted predecessor Aidy Boothroyd, that reaching the major tournaments is the bare minimum and what really matters is how they fare at the main events – along with producing players for the seniors.
There are a number in his current crop that could well go on to do that.
Balogun fired England ahead just before the breakCredit: Getty
The Arsenal ace netted his second goal in the 66th minuteCredit: Getty
Curtis Jones, Jacob Ramsey and Anthony Gordon are among the ones to watch, while Emile Smith Rowe already has three senior caps to his name.
Carsley named a very attacking line-up with Smith Rowe dropping into midfield to accommodate Everton livewire Gordon.
His side made an electric start thanks to some gorgeous one-touch football, with one such zipping move eight minutes in ending with Angel Gomes firing against the post.
Smith Rowe was the experienced head in the team and it was through his tenacity that England made the breakthrough just before half-time – and a poor touch from Albanian’s centre-back Adolf Selmani.
The top-knotted defender’s miscontrol allowed Smith Rowe to nick the ball off him and square for Balogun, who fired into the roof of the net from six yards.
Archer wrapped up England’s win in the 77th minuteCredit: Getty
Emile Smith Rowe pulled the strings as he bagged an assistCredit: Getty
It hardly sparked a procession though in the second half at Chesterfield’s Technique Stadium as Albania continued to be resolute in defence – and tough in the tackle.
On a few occasions, a fleet-footed England attacker was left writhing in agony after being chopped down by a player in red. Poor pint-sized Gomes was sent flying into the advertising hoardings at one point.
England did kill off the game with 24 minutes to go and again it was Balogun who was the right man in the right place.
Morgan Gibbs-White, who had just come on for Smith Rowe, stood a ball up to the far post which Charlie Cresswell headed back across goal, and there was Balogun to nod in from a few yards.
It took his tally to six goals in Under-21 qualifying in just appearances and will no doubt have impressed any scouts watching ahead of next season.
Archer then got in on the act by converting a cross from Gordon, who also drew the foul that saw Armando Dobra sent off.
The main test is still to come but Carsley has comfortably passed the initial exam of qualification – playing some lovely stuff while doing it, too.
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