England and Slovenia play out Cologne stalemate

Uninspiring England get the job done with potential Dutch date to come in last 16

England’s Jude Bellingham. Photograph: Alex Grimm/Getty Images

England 0 Slovenia 0

Uninspiring England get the job done. Finishing top of Group C thanks to a shaky 1-0 defeat of Serbia and draws with Denmark and now Slovenia, sets up a knockout match against a third-placed finisher, potentially the Netherlands, in Gelsenkirchen next Sunday at 5pm.

The Slovenians celebrated Clément Turpin’s full-time whistle like they had won the Euros. Placing third in the group, undefeated on three points, is a monumental achievement for a country of 2.1 million people. The last 16 also awaits for Matjaz Kek’s brave underdogs.

Around the hour mark, the Müngersdorfer crowd gave up on the spectacle. With nothing doing in front of them, it was time to party in Cologne. Sing the hits.

Lacklustre England plodded to the interval with 73 per cent possession and two shots on target. They finished with three shots on target as Cole Palmer almost chiseled through the Slovenian wall.


It was humid, it was dour. England did just enough. On a scorching hot day in Cologne, their latest offering to these European Championships was a sight to behold. Mercifully, temperatures dropped to a breezy 26 degrees by the 9pm kick-off and a breathable 23 degrees after half-time.

Gareth Southgate came armed with two bottles of water, entering the furnace where 25,000 English fans were yelling Bruce Springsteen’s Dancing in the Dark, to take his position beside assistant manager Steve Holland.

A tumultuous time for both men, next comes the moment of truth in their eight years at the helm of England’s most talented generation. The question grows louder: do they know what they are doing?

Replacing the anonymous Conor Gallagher with Kobbie Mainoo for the second half suggests that the management are rolling the dice. Mainoo is capable of running the English midfield for the next 15 years, yet it took Southgate 225 minutes in Germany to give the Manchester United teenager his chance.

The dugout is where Southgate and Holland sat whenever the big screen switched to them, watching events unfold on a monitor as their tweaked formation packed Gallagher into the grass ahead of Declan Rice.

It’s also where the lively Phil Foden, lethargic Jude Bellingham, Bukayo Saka and Harry Kane battled with each other for pockets of space.

Andraž Šporar was stuck to Rice, which turned Marc Guéhi into the English play maker.

There were moments for both countries to score. Petar Stojanović's early header across the English goal mouth found an unmarked Benjamin Šeško, but the young forward’s poor connection was easily gathered by Jordan Pickford.

Foden had some joy down the inside left channel, one wild cross over Saka’s head and a clever lateral run should have yielded more. The second attack ended with a Saka tap-in but the lineman’s flag was up after Foden’s neat one-two with Rice.

England were a study of nervous energy with Kane back healing to nobody before Bellingham pounced only to be heroically blocked by Vanja Drkušić. It was scrappy. Rice’s gritty play did create a shot for Kane that Jan Oblak easily gathered.

A real chance came on 34 minutes when Foden curled his 35 metre free-kick towards Oblak’s top corner but the Atletico Madrid goalie had it covered.

As Bellingham and Gallagher argued, a Slovenian attack down the right saw Žan Karničnik’s cross hit Guéhi shoulder. Play on. Slovenia had a second penalty shout when Saka was holding Erik Janza in the box. Again, play on.

Another real chance came when Kieran Trippier turned onto his right foot, only to curve the ball centimetres beyond Gallagher and Kane lunging late at the back post.

England were clueless; the Slovenians in the stands kept jumping up and down to energise their willing, if limited team.

Mainoo for Gallagher was another Southgate experiment gone wrong as God Save the King reverberated around the stadium. The 19 year old immediately entered the territory of Vanja Drkušić and Adam Gnezda Čerin. The heartbeat of this Slovenia side, Cerin barely got a kick, so busy was he organising the resistance. Drkušić just kicked Mainoo.

That’s what this became; Kek armed his players with a specific, man on man approach to stifle and counterattack, but mainly to squeeze England’s front six into submission.

It was messy from start to finish. Just how Kek wanted it to pan out.

“Slovenia is a country of two million people, all of whom ski,” claimed World Soccer magazine pre-tournament. Skiing nation sure, but football is clearly in their blood. They matched England here, fought tooth and nail without ever giving Šeško an opportunity to show why Premier League and La Liga giants are circling the 21 year old striker. Concerns about his fitness appear to be true.

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey

Gavin Cummiskey is The Irish Times' Soccer Correspondent