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England U21s need to step up after riding their luck at the Euros in Poland

England's Under-21 side are riding their luck. Had it not been for Jordan Pickford's penalty save against Sweden, they would have lost their opening game. Had it not been for a second half fightback, they would have lost their second game against Slovakia too. England need a win against hosts Poland to ensure qualification, though a draw may be enough. Either way they will have to improve dramatically if they're to emulate the success of other England's other young lions.

This has been an unexpectedly impressive summer for the Football Association's junior divisions. There was heartache in Croatia for the U17s as an injury time equaliser in the final forced a penalty shootout with Spain which, being English, they obviously lost. But reaching the final in the first place was a fine achievement.

The England U20 side went one better, beating Venezuela in South Korea to lift the World Cup. But Aidy Boothroyd's U21s have given no impression yet that they will emulate their younger compatriots.

Neither Sweden nor Slovakia are lightweights. The senior Sweden side are excellent at organisation and efficiency, but their U21s were technically adept and keen to move the ball quickly with strings of short, smart passes. Slovakia were different, but just as dangerous, squeezing England with a high press that left them befuddled and behind at the break.

However, there is more than enough talent in Boothroyd's squad to cope with such things. They should not have looked so flat for large sections of the first game and the opening half of the second. They may be sitting a point clear at the top of Group A but the truth is that they could have easily been eliminated already by now.

The turning point in their campaign, if it proves to be a turning point, came at half-time in that second match. Defender Alfie Mawson, one of the few Swansea City players to have had an impressive 2016-17 campaign, told reporters that there had been bitter recriminations in the dressing room following Slovakia's opening goal -- a preventable header from a set piece.

"It got a little bit heated, really," said Mawson. "A lot of players were frustrated. I was so frustrated about the goal. But Aidy was calm and calmed everyone down. We said we needed to man up and do the right thing... it was a sloppy goal. We were annoyed. I was so annoyed."

To their credit, England did improve after the break. In this they were aided by a shrewd substitution by Boothroyd. Everton's right-back Mason Holgate, partially to blame for the goal and otherwise unimpressive, was withdrawn and Jacob Murphy, naturally a winger, was pushed on his place. It was, given Murphy's unfamiliarity with the role, a bold call. But it worked.

England had far more width and they finally began to impose themselves upon the game. Murphy provided the cross, a devilishly whipped effort, for Mawson to head home the equaliser. Eleven minutes later, with Slovakia looking increasingly stretched, Nathan Redmond hit them from the other flank, cutting in and finishing well to give England a lead they would not relinquish.

Alfie Mawson
England's U21s have some work to do before they can impress like their counterparts.

Praise has been given to psychologist Rebecca Symes for her work behind the scenes in changing the attitude of the players. And, given the mental collapse that was evident in the senior side's defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 last summer, her presence may prove invaluable.

"People might say that the English can't hack it," said Mawson. "But we showed there's a breed of players coming through we're progressing the right way."

It may be a little early for that sort of trumpet-blowing: there are still a number of players yet to demonstrate the form of which they are capable. Chelsea's Lewis Baker was the star of last year's successful Toulon tournament winning side, but we're yet to see him fully express himself. His teammate Tammy Abraham will likely spend next season on loan, leading the line at Swansea City, but his finishing against Sweden was poor. There should be more to come from this team. They are better than this.

England's poor performances in Poland does not necessarily mean that all hope is lost. The senior side's two best tournament showings (semifinalists at the 1990 World Cup and Euro 1996) both came after dispiriting starts. But it's clear that there is no more margin for error.

An improved performance is required against the hosts on Thursday -- a good result is the only way that England can earn themselves a semifinal against a group runner-up. On this form, they're not going to have much chance against one of the winners.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.


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