Marcus Rashford lifts England past Romania in tepid Euro 2020 send-off

A SPIRIT OF 86 banner, permanently in residence at the Riverside Stadium, is a reminder of Middlesbrough drawing strength from adversity after nearly going out of existence in the mid-Eighties.

For the national team, successfully evoking the spirit of 66 - England’s finest hour – has proved frustratingly elusive since.

In fairness, football nearly came home in 96, but it was not quite to be.

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If Gareth Southgate’s crop can at least muster that same spirit, when England reached the last four of the European Championships on home soil, some positivity will be found in the coming weeks amid the difficult times we live in.

England's Marcus Rashford celebrates after scoring his side's first goal during the international friendly between England and Romania in Middlesbrough. (Paul Ellis, Pool via AP)

It remains a very big if and seems a fair way off as it stands.

This latest sign-off before a major tournament begins was low key in the Teesside sunshine – although Southgate will be grateful for the fact that there were no additional injury concerns picked up.

Some important players got match minutes into their tank such as Jadon Sancho, Luke Shaw, captain-for-the-day Marcus Rashford and Kalvin Phillips, while Jordan Henderson made his long-awaited return from groin surgery – replacing the Leeds United player at the break.

He should have been reflecting on a first senior goal for England into the bargain, only to see his 78th-minute penalty saved by Florian Nita.

York-born Ben Godfrey goes close to scoring for England against Romania.

Fortunately, Rashford fared better on that count ten minutes earlier, converting the first of two spot-kicks awarded to the hosts.

The debate will rage over the fitness levels of Henderson and Harry Maguire, while England’s stellar cast from Chelsea and Manchester City will go straight into tournament football without any competitive action in warm-up games.

It was left to a big player from the red side of Manchester in Rashford to settle the issue on Teesside, coolly firing home from the spot after substitute Tiberiu Capusa, moments after coming on, was penalised for a foul on Jack Grealish, who again brought his many offensive gifts to the table.

But perhaps, the major take-away from the occasion was the fact that James Ward-Prowse – whose quality from set-plays came to the fore in particular – appears to be the stand-out contender to fill the squad space vacated by the injured Trent Alexander-Arnold and advanced his claims here.

England's Marcus Rashford (right) attempts a shot on goal (Picture: PA)

Elsewhere, there was plenty of evidence of what is already known about England.

Just two players who started in Wednesday’s friendly against Austria lined up from the off four days on and like in the midweek game, the sight of England players taking the knee was greeted with a mixture of boos and applause. In a line-up containing six BAME starters, with Rashford proudly wearing the captain’s armband and becoming the youngest player to lead the Three Lions since Michael Owen captained the nation at the Riverside in June, 2003, the sound of boos represented another disappointment.

Two of that contingent went desperately close to conjuring the breakthrough with moments of incision that stood out a mile in the first half.

Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s ability to leap high distances precedes him. His towering effort from Ward-Prowse’s free-kick exposed a high Romanian line just after the half-hour, with his header in the classic genre of an old-school centre forward rattling the crossbar.

Not too long after Sancho showed his class, cutting inside to unleash an exquisite curler which also hit the woodwork. It was a quality moment.

Grealish again was a prolific pest and the axis on the left between the Manchester United duo of Rashford and Luke Shaw was a slick one at times, yet there was also plenty of unthreatening lateral passing which enabled Romania to keep their shape.

At the other end, some edginess from Tyrone Mings surfaced in particular and Romania carved out some excellent chances in open play which would have been ruthlessly finished by more accomplished opponents.

Early on, Mings was dispossessed near the centre of the pitch and England were exposed with Constantin Paun and Camora setting up Razvan Marin, but fortunately his effort was straight at Sam Johnstone.

Making his debut, the West Brom custodian also made an important block with his legs to deny Sorescu Deian Cristian towards the end of the first half after the hosts were opened up alarmingly on the counter attack.

On the restart, Deian Cristian threatened an opener when his angled strike flashed just wide while Alexandru Cicaldau had England’s shaky rearguard in a flap before firing off target.

For Romania – ranked 39 places below England in the Fifa standings, there is no ‘Maradona of the Carpathians’ any more in the shape of the gifted Gheorghe Hagi to illuminate the scene.

But much like the Austrians, they produced more than enough chances to at least earn a draw after being afforded joy in their offensive endeavours.

After going behind, the reaction was impressive. A block from Mings denied Cicaldau and Johnstone produced a brilliant point-blank save to somehow stop Andrei Ivan’s follow-up.

Nita – who superbly thwarted Calvert-Lewin early in the second half – excelled himself to keep out Henderson’s penalty after Calvert-Lewin was pole-axed by Vlad Chiriches, who later miraculously diverted Jude Bellingham’s close-range effort.

England: Johnstone; Godfrey, White, Mings, Shaw (Trippier 75); Grealish, Phillips (J Henderson 45), Ward-Prowse (Rice 65); Rashford (Lingard 75), Calvert-Lewin (Watkins 82), Sancho (Bellingham 65). Unused substitutes: Pickford, Ramsdale, D Henderson, Coady, Kane.

Romania: Nita; Cristian (Capusa 66), Nedelcearu, Chiriches (Rus 84), Camora; Stanciu, Marin, Cicaldau (Budescu 80); Ivan, Alibec (Hagi 66), Paun (Baluta 80). Unused substitutes: Vlad, Iacob, Ganea, Maxim, Morutan, Olaru.

Referee: T Martins (Portugal).