From class to calamity: England’s opening night against France, and possibly their entire European Championship campaign, veered horribly off course in Cesena as a VAR red card for Hamza Choudhury plus a 95th-minute own goal from Aaron Wan-Bissaka inflicted a damaging defeat on Aidy Boothroyd’s under-21s. The repercussions may be lasting.
Choudhury was dismissed for a dreadful foul on Jonathan Bamba that sent the Lille forward to hospital for tests on an ankle that took the full force of the Leicester midfielder’s airborne tackle. England survived the penalty kick that followed, the second one that France failed to convert on the night, but not the late onslaught that ultimately came against 10 men.
Jonathan Ikoné cancelled out Phil Foden’s glorious opener in the 89th minute having been shown inside from the right once too often. France were not done avenging their stricken teammate there. In the final seconds the substitute Jean-Philippe Mateta back-heeled a corner towards Dean Henderson’s goal. England’s keeper stooped to collect only for the Manchester United transfer target Wan-Bissaka to slice horribly into the roof of his own net.
A night to savour the brilliance of Foden had turned into a defeat that may ultimately send England out of the tournament. The Manchester City midfielder was on his knees as France celebrated their dramatic comeback. Choudhury was lost in his thoughts in the dressing room, having apologised to the France bench as his yellow card was upgraded to red on review. England had only themselves to blame.
“Ultimately the sending off changed the game,” Boothroyd reflected. “He [Choudhury] is devastated in there. There is no malice in him, he’s a good guy who thinks he has hurt a fellow professional and let his teammates down. It was just his enthusiasm to want to block the ball. We are all very disappointed but we have no time for sulking. We have another game coming up and if we’re going to get out of the group we need to get maximum points.”
Boothroyd had admitted before the game that this tournament represented knockout football from the start. England are effectively in a desperate battle to claim the best runners-up spot if they are to reach the semi-finals and avoid elimination at the group stage. It was all so unnecessary. The England head coach is fond of describing his team as a collection of artists and soldiers. Foden provided the artistry. The soldiers shot themselves in the foot.
Dominic Solanke and Demarai Gray squandered excellent first-half chances while the France defender Ibrahima Konaté struck his own post denying the Leicester forward a certain tap-in. England were dominant from the start only for a handball by the captain, Jake Clarke-Salter, to grant France their first penalty of the game. No VAR was required on this occasion but Henderson read Moussa Dembélé’s intentions perfectly to palm away the spot kick.
France appeared increasingly assured of curbing England’s attacks when they were picked apart by the brilliant feet of Foden early in the second half. It was a sensational way for the 19-year-old to confirm his status as one of the potential stars of the Euros. Collecting the ball midway inside the French half he set off on a weaving, perfectly balanced run that took him away from Lucas Tousart, Colin Dagba and Dayot Upamecano and into the penalty area. Before Tousart, the France captain, could make a second attempt to stop Foden he swept a low left-foot shot beyond Bernardoni and inside the far corner.
The beauty was followed by the beast. Choudhury had shone as England’s midfield anchor but produced a shocking tackle that sent Bamba out of the game on a stretcher as the striker shaped to shoot inside the area. Houssem Aouar struck the resulting penalty against a post but any hope England had of a reprieve and uplifting victory vanished in the dying moments. Ikoné’s equaliser prompted another wave of French attacks in stoppage time. Another English rush of blood, this time from the disappointing Wan-Bissaka, produced a final blow.