Switzerland 0-0 England (5-6 PENS); Pickford penalty heroics secure the Three Lions the effectively meaningless Nations League third place

Switzerland 0-0 England (5-6 PENS); Pickford penalty heroics secure the Three Lions the effectively meaningless Nations League third place

It took some penalty shootout heroics from England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, scoring one spot kick before then saving another, to earn the Three Lions victory in the UEFA Nations League third-place playoff.

In truth, it was an accomplishment – and a match in general – that few cared about, myself included in that crowd.

It’s something I’ve never understood the desire for in international football – the meaningless third-place playoff. Teams are already spent, they’ve already endured the ignominy of being knocked out of the respective tournament, any yet are somehow expected to rally back around to care for a match that means so incredibly little to anyone.

I understand the format’s existence in just one footballing competition – the Olympic Games. That is because the third-place playoff takes the form of a bronze medal match. This is important for countries as the medals table is ultimately how nations are separated and ranked on performance, and therefore competing over the bronze can matter to teams (even though a number of sports with knockout tournaments actually just share the bronze between those knocked out in the semi-finals, and football so easily also could too).

Yet, despite this, FIFA and UEFA both seem to still have a burning love for the third-place match, leading to the drab spectacle that was on display in Portugal early on Sunday afternoon.

That feeling of pointless football was for all to see in Guimaraes, as the England and Switzerland camps lined up ahead of a match few even cared was going on. Just as easily as staging it, both sides could have instead shrugged off their shortcomings in the semi-finals and been on flights back home to enjoy the start of a summer break.

Instead, by decree of the UEFA higher-ups, they were forced to play out a slow, meaningless pre-amble to the actual final – played with all the disinterest and fatigue that you’d have anticipated in a third-place playoff that didn’t need to exist.

The match itself, a real low-key affair, saw England boss the chances, with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling both hitting the woodwork. Swiss goalkeeper Yann Sommer pulled off a superb save to deny Dele Alli.

Bournemouth’s Callum Wilson thought he’d won the game for England late into the second half when he turned the ball home, only to see his goal chalked off by VAR – with the video assistant referee ruling him to have fouled Manuel Akanji in the build up of the goal.

Ending goalless at the full time whistle, and failing to find any form of breakthrough in extra time, the game dragged its way through to penalties, where Pickford stepped up to perform – much like he did in last summer’s World Cup Round of 16 match against Colombia.

Harry Maguire, Ross Barkley, Jadon Sancho and Sterling all hit the mark for England, before Pickford himself stepped up to score England’s fifth penalty (the fact alone that the goalkeeper was taking traditionally significant, and potentially deciding, penalty number five probably tells all it needs to about the third-place playoff).

At that stage, the scores remained level heading into sudden death. Switzerland had been on target with all five of their strikes so far, seeing Steven Zuber, Granit Xhaka, Akanji, Kevin Mbabu and Fabian Schar all convert from the penalty spot.

Eric Dier then converted England’s sixth spot kick to put the Three Lions in the driving seat.

To respond, up stepped Swiss forward Josip Drmic but the Borussia Monchengladbach man saw his effort saved by Pickford, giving victory and third place in the Nations League to Gareth Southgate’s England.

It remains an utterly meaningless game, and one that everyone could have likely done without playing, but I suppose at least for the annuls of history Southgate’s tenure as England manager has another minor success on its record (even if the final, overall tournament win still eludes him so far).

Netherlands 3-1 England AET; Defensive calamities cost the Three Lions & surely spell the end for Stones

Netherlands 3-1 England AET; Defensive calamities cost the Three Lions & surely spell the end for Stones

From minute one in Guimaraes, in front of a crowd predominantly sporting the St George’s cross, England were outplayed by their Dutch counterparts. Those donned in orange shirts dominated the ball and bossed the midfield, but it was ultimately costly mistakes that became England’s own undoing in Portugal.

England have become allergic to appearing in finals of international competitions, and once again it looked like it could be against Gareth Southgate’s side.

Once again, much like in Russia twelve months earlier, it was looking similar to a case of coming so close and yet still not quite being able to get over that final hurdle.

That’s why England’s opening goal came so against the run of play.

Marcus Rashford may not have had a good finish to the season domestically, as he watched himself and his Manchester United teammates fumble their way miserably to a poor league finish.

However, in an England shirt, he had all the hunger of a striker playing at his finest – even if he was starved of service for much of the game.

Pouncing on a highly uncharacteristic mistake by Ajax’s young rock Matthijs de Ligt, he brought the ball beyond the outstretched recovery swing of the Dutch defender and earned a stonewall penalty. The obligatory VAR check had to happen, but there was no circumstance under the sun it wasn’t a spot kick.

Rashford picked himself up and dusted off the heavy knock that had left him in some discomfort, before dispatching confidently past Netherlands goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen.

The Three Lions had the lead, if undeserved, and the Estadio D. Afonso Henriques erupted. There was an overwhelming majority of England supporters packed into its 30,000 seats.

Even despite the lead though, Ronald Koeman’s Netherlands pressed the ball. Their creative spark in the midfield created and connived to fashion space in and around the England team.

Their counterparts in white – Ross Barkley, Declan Rice and Fabian Delph – simply didn’t to anywhere the same extent.

As such, when a second half corner to the Dutch ended with de Ligt rising highest and powering a bullet header into the near side of Jordan Pickford’s goal, nobody could say they were surprised. Or they were lying if they did.

England were off the boil, and struggling to create, and as such their opponents punished them.

Then came a moment of contention. England, with easily their best fashioned chance of the entire game, slotted in substitute Jesse Lingard, who thought he’d won the semi-final for the Three Lions with just eight minutes left on the clock.

It was the kind of fluid, attacking move that England had sorely missed throughout the game, but there was yet to be a cruel twist.

Upon the mandatory VAR check, Lingard was seen to be questionably offside. It was a tight call against Dutch full back Denzel Dumfries, but there was an argument there to be made that he was half a yard at most ahead of the defence. That was the view of the officials too, and the goal was chalked off. England’s finest attacking move of the game, which looked like it had won them the match, stood for nothing anymore.

Infuriating for England fans, but there a tight call to be made, and if it had been the Netherlands scoring a late goal, those same supporters would have been outraged if the goal had stood.

Extra time came calling as a result, and that’s where the wheels came off for England truly.

John Stones, who’d had another shaky game – as he has done in a number of games in recent times both domestically and internationally – lost the plot, is probably the best way of describing it.

We all know he has been fashioned into the ball-playing defender model of centre back at Manchester City. Southgate wants to play that style too; the modern evolution of the man at the back, who carries it out and plays as much as the midfield.

That’s lovely, and it makes for beautiful football when it works, but it also asks for mistakes to happen.

Even the best in the world do so. On the opposite team – in de Ligt and Virgil van Dijk – two of arguably the world’s best in this role were lined up, and England’s opening goal had come from a similar mistake of that nature.

Stones, despite the patriotic, rose-tinted glasses of many England supporters, is not one of the best in the world. He’s error prone under pressure; not great for a position and style of play that requires defenders to be cool under pressure.

That shakiness came to the forefront as clear as day against the Netherlands in extra time. Stones dallied on the ball initially, having had an age to clear it to safety, before turning towards his goalkeeper and simply allowing the ball to be stolen away from him by Memphis Depay.

Initially, the Manchester City defender was bailed out by a great save by Pickford to deny the Dutch, but the ball bounced across the box and the sheer pace of winger Quincy Promes allowed him to barrel his way to the ball and, via a helpful redirection from Kyle Walker’s knee, bundle it into the back of the net.

England suddenly found themselves for the first time in the game behind and it was entirely from their own calamitous creation.

The Dutch third covered England in no greater light either. Again Stones involved, he played an underweight pass to Barkley on the edge of the box, before the Chelsea man’s own backpass towards goal was lacking the necessary power.

The Netherlands pounced and one simply ball across the box allowed Promes to smash home the third for the Dutch and earn himself his place on the scoresheet, having seen his earlier strike ultimately recorded as a Walker own goal.

Within the space of extra time, England had gone from a side being outplayed to a side that looked completely unaware how to play the game of football.

It has to be a worry for Southgate, who wants to play this attacking style of football – and yes, mistakes and bad games will happen – but even removing the mistakes in this match, the Netherlands were without question the better side throughout.

Against top opposition, England just don’t seem to have the cutting edge required. It very much seems to be the usual case that easy qualification processes papering over the cracks, and that’s why the Nations League format will be so interesting, as England face up much more regularly against tougher opponents, for better or worse results-wise.

Either way, I do believe that this should be the end of Stones’ time, at least for a lengthy period, in the England setup. He’s too much of a liability at the back, and there are English defenders at lower clubs in the Premier League who arguably deserve their chance instead.

Sure, a lot of those aren’t necessarily the ball-playing centre backs Southgate wants, but in many ways, given how costly mistakes from that role have been in this game and previously, a no-nonsense central defender to partner these more creative forces might be just what England needs to steady the defensive ship because right now it’s sprung a quite serious leak.

It will be interesting to see what the future holds for Southgate’s England selection and Stones in particular. However, while my opinion would be to cut the Manchester City man, the current England manager is loyal to his chosen players and so I can’t see much change on the horizon – which does worry me for improving the current problem.

Montenegro 1-5 England; Three Lions survive early scare to mount an impressive attacking display

Montenegro 1-5 England; Three Lions survive early scare to mount an impressive attacking display

England looked to have been struck by a sucker punch in Podgorica when Marko Vesovic fired Montenegro ahead with their first shot, but Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions recovered to roar back to an impressive 5-1 win.

It had looked like a routine qualifying game for England in the opening ten minutes, as they knocked the ball around confidently, relatively unchallenged by Montenegro.

However, 17 minutes into the contest, Montenegro pounced on some poor defensive positioning from England, which saw Fatos Beqiraj get the better of Michael Keane and play in Vesovic.

The Legia Warsaw wing back still had plenty to do, and did get a lucky bounce of the ball, but it was a fantastic finish past a diving Jordan Pickford to give the hosts a surprise lead.

England were stunned following the goal, having come so against the run of play.

Luckily, within 12 minutes, Keane atoned for the defensive mistakes in the lead up to the Montenegrin goal and headed home his first England goal from a brilliant Ross Barkley delivery. It was exactly what England needed to knock the confidence the home side was rapidly developing.

Yet, they still didn’t look comfortable. England looked truly shaky at the back, getting picked apart by the Montenegro attack, who briefly turned into Barcelona as they carved open Southgate’s defence with one-touch, tiki-taka style play.

England were dangerous going forward – as is usually the case in these kinds of qualifying games – but for once Montenegro also looked likely to score each time they attacked. There was a real attacking contest on display for fans of both sides in Podgorica, even if the defending left something to be desired.

For England’s sake, boy wonder Callum Hudson-Odoi – who was making his first start for England – managed to work some space and fire a shot towards goal that Barkley was on hand to tap into the net.

It was a much needed goal to put England back in the ascendancy, and Hudson-Odoi deserved his role in the game. Perhaps at fault with his position for the Montenegrin opener, largely just through youthful naivety, he was full of eagerness and energy going forwards. Even if things weren’t coming off, he was still getting his head down and looking to attack at every opportunity.

Once England had the lead, you expected Montenegro to fall back into the usual trap in these qualifying games – sit back and defend desperately, looking for that once chance.

They didn’t.

Huge respect should be given to the home side, because they weren’t giving up this game. Perhaps still feeling hard done by from the bad penalty call late on against them in their last match against Bulgaria, they kept pushing forward and cutting England open at the back.

As such, it was a massive relief to see Barkley – who was quite possibly the luckiest player to ever wear an England shirt – be in the right place at the right time to smash home Raheem Sterling’s pull back early in the second half.

It gave England the breathing room, even if it made massively clear a glaring flaw with Southgate’s side in Podgorica.

They were in essence a glass cannon. Going forwards, England look absolutely unplayable. They’re full of youth, talent and desire and look like one of the best sides in Europe right now.

However, at the back, they were found out time and time again by Montenegro. This is an opponent who haven’t actually won many recent games at home, certainly not against sides of the quality of England, and yet every time they drove forward there looked like a real chance of them scoring. England need to buckle down at the back, getting rid of some genuinely concerning mistakes and complacency that was present in this match.

As time ran out on the clock, England’s better stamina let them run rings around the Montenegrin defence, with Sterling the architect driving the play.

First, the Manchester City winger drove into the box from a delightful through ball before slotting the ball across for Harry Kane to tap in possibly the easiest international goal he’ll ever score, before a similarly brilliant pass let Sterling drive home a fifth low past the goalkeeper.

It was an attacking masterclass against an opponent that fought hard but simply ran out of steam.

Some unsightly frustrations emerged out of the England late on that Southgate will want to get out of his players, with first Jordan Henderson picking up a foolish yellow card for getting into a confrontation and minor handbags with the Montenegrin players – who by then had turned from competitors to wind-up merchants.

Rose then collected a last second yellow when he utterly unnecessarily cleaned out one of Montenegro’s midfield. Late on, 5-1 up and in an entirely harmless position of the field, it was absolutely ridiculous and could cost him later on in the qualifying games with suspension.

However, following the game, there were a number of allegations of racial abuse from the Montenegrin supporters towards Rose, and England’s other black players – making the frustrated kick out (while still a stupid action) a lot more understandable. It also demonstrated the huge character of Sterling and Hudson-Odoi, who suffered similar abuse throughout the game too, and kept their heads.

It was ultimately a blemish on the end of a great attacking display, while the defensive frailties offered a few little murmurs of concern for Southgate and his coaching staff ahead of the next international break.

However, negatives aside, England still walk away from their two EURO 2020 qualifiers with a perfect record, two wins, six points and having scored 10 goals – with only one in response.

It still remains an exciting team, and England fans can feel hopeful looking towards those finals come next summer, with qualification already looking in almost no doubt.

England 5-0 Czech Republic; Sterling stars as Three Lions carve open Czech defence

England 5-0 Czech Republic; Sterling stars as Three Lions carve open Czech defence

England ran out confident 5-0 winners in their opening EURO 2020 qualifying match against Czech Republic, with Raheem Sterling stealing the show with a sublime hat-trick.

The Manchester City winger opened the scoring for England with a poacher’s finish, before adding two more clinical finishes to silence any potential critics. For a player previously criticised for lacking goals in a national team shirt, he made no mistake with his chances in this one.

He fully deserved his plaudits as he walked off the Wembley pitch shortly after to be rested for the next match against Montenegro.

Harry Kane had added a second for England just before half-time from the spot after Portuguese referee Artur Manuel Soares Dias awarded the home side a penalty.

It was an arguably soft decision, with Sterling simply being sandwiched between two Czech defenders and possibly having already lost control of the ball, but either way Kane made no mistake with the finish.

A poor defensive error from Bristol City centre-back Tomas Kalas finished the scoring when he fumbled the ball into the back of his own net. It had bounced up at him from a save by his goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka, but it did seem as if the Czech defender had time to adjust his feet.

Gareth Southgate used the match to blood in some young faces into the England set-up, with Borussia Dortmund starlet Jadon Sancho getting a first start and Callum Hudson-Odoi getting a run-out later on.

Declan Rice also made his first international appearance for England since making the switch of allegiance from the Republic of Ireland.

England looked encouraging, full of a good balance of youthful energy and necessary experience. In what could have easily been a banana skin of an opening fixture (the Czech Republic have some real EURO pedigree behind them) the Three Lions got exactly the result that was needed.

The clean sheet was an added bonus, though in fairness England had little defensive work to do throughout much of the match. So much so that there did appear to be some few moments of complacency at the start of the second half, but the England defence rode the pressure well.

In truth, England’s group is one that shouldn’t cause any real problems. Especially not at Wembley.

There may be no out-and-out ‘whipping boy’ in the group, but none of Bulgaria, Montenegro or Kosovo should provide any more of a threat than Czech Republic did.

With a brilliant start now in the bag, England just need to push on and keep this form up. There will be a raucous reception for them in Podgorica on Monday, as Montenegro look to psych them out of the match, but on paper at least it should be another confident display and win.