Football: England 2 Italy 0 (Under 20 International Friendly)

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Photo via Ethan.K’s Flickr stream at http://www.flickr.com/photos/ethankan/184142304/

The Varsity Boat Race was re-enacted at Loftus Road last night as the plucky underdogs made the early running only for the favourites to put on a surge about a third of the way through which their opponents never seriously threatened to overhaul. Goals for England from captain Ciaran Clark of Aston Villa and Manchester City striker Daniel Sturridge, in the 20th and 30th minutes respectively, quelled early promise from their Italian visitors and established an authority over this friendly fixture that the home side never relinquished.

Despite the once again imperious presence of West Ham’s James Tomkins in their rearguard England were pegged back in their own penalty area for much of the opening exchanges, but first lively left-sided attacker Mattia Mustacchio, who has made four substitute appearances for Sampdoria, scuffed his shot following some pleasing inter-passing and then Tottenham keeper David Button had to react instantly to deny Guido Marilungo, Mustacchio’s right sided counterpart for both club and country. England struggled to make any impact until trickery by Chelsea winger Scott Sinclair won a corner on the left which Italian keeper Carlo Pinsoglio of Juventus came for but got nowhere near, allowing Clark standing just behind him to nod firmly home off the underside of the bar.

Italy rallied to respond, but instead ten minutes later Arsenal’s Kieran Gibbs, the dominant central midfielder on the night, clipped over a ball from the left which eluded West Ham’s Freddie Sears but found one-time Chelsea target Sturridge perfectly placed to collect and then plant the ball beyond the advancing keeper from eight yards out. Now seriously rattled, the Italian defence somehow held out until half time despite heading both narrowly over their own bar and then straight to the feet of an over-enthusiastic Sturridge who a short while later thought he’d put the game beyond doubt with a thumping finish only to see his effort ruled out for what must have been a very marginal offside.

Italian coach Francesco Rocca sought to remedy his team’s shell shock by making five changes at the interval and that almost reaped immediate dividends as substitute forward Claudio Della Penna’s close range effort was blocked at the last moment by Fulham’s accomplished looking Chris Smalling who himself had only just replaced Tomkins. Full back Matteo Gentili headed the resulting corner just too high.

Sturridge dropped deeper and began displaying the full range of his skills while Sinclair showed that he has matured considerably since his whirlwind but wayward early days in Chelsea’s reserves, beating defenders with pace and balance before moving the ball on effectively. There was brief alarm as substitute keeper Ben Amos of Manchester United had to be at full stretch to stop a fierce volley from Della Penna, but normal service was soon resumed once West Ham’s Junior Stanislas came on for Sinclair and began to roam around demonstrating his own array of skills, most notably when his sumptuous backheel sent Chelsea left back Ryan Bertrand surging into the area only to see his cutback smuggled away from Sears, who endured a hard working but rather disappointing evening. Gibbs and Stanislas then combined down the left to provide Sturridge with a solid gold opportunity to wrap things up, but somehow he could only glance his free header wide from ten yards out.

Though England’s welter of subsitutes posed just as many problems for the Azzurri as the starters, it was the Italians who had the best chances to claim a late goal, but first Bertrand saved his stranded keeper’s blushes with a goal-line clearance and then Leandro Martinez could only repeat Sturridge’s efforts when a header on target from close range would surely have reduced the arrears. England were worthy and comfortable winners, but several of Italy’s team on the night ply their trade at the equivalent of League One or below, so supporters should temper their justifiable optimism ahead of this summer’s Under 20 World Cup in Egypt where the squads may meet again.

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