Ollie Watkins and Lewis Dunk emerge with credit on England’s audition night against Australia

On a momentous night of auditions for England’s fringe players, Ollie Watkins and Lewis Dunk emerged as the standout performers in a lackluster 1-0 friendly victory over Australia. With only five games remaining before Gareth Southgate selects his Euro 2024 squad, Watkins staked his claim as a reliable poacher by scoring the winning goal just before the hour mark. Meanwhile, Dunk showcased his defensive prowess alongside John Stones, solidifying their partnership at the center of England’s backline.

However, despite these individual successes, the overall performance left much to be desired. It became clear that England lacks the same level of dynamism without key players like Harry Kane and Jude Bellingham, who were absent from the match. Inexperienced debutant Levi Colwill struggled with nerves and conceded possession too easily, while Trent Alexander-Arnold had a limited impact in his role as a hybrid fullback-midfielder. England’s captain, Jordan Henderson, had an underwhelming outing, and his early substitution was met with loud boos from the Wembley crowd. The sight of “Al-Ettifaq” alongside his name on the teamsheet was certainly jarring, and it is unlikely that England fans buy his justification for moving to Saudi Arabia.

Eight of the starting XI had single-digit caps, and although there were some bright spots, such as the threatening presence of Jarrod Bowen on the right wing and the energetic Conor Gallagher, the overall performance lacked cohesion. Australia had their fair share of opportunities and could have easily won the game with better luck in front of goal.

Away from the match itself, the Football Association (FA) faced criticism for its hesitant response to the recent Hamas attacks in Israel. In this context, the FA chose not to illuminate Wembley’s arch with Israeli colors as they had done in previous incidents. The minute’s silence before kick-off passed without protest, but the accompanying message was vague, referring to “devastating events” in an “ongoing conflict” in Israel and Palestine instead of specifically mentioning attacks or terrorism.

The game started with a flurry of aggressive play from Australia. Watkins took an elbow to the jaw within the first minute, Jack Grealish suffered a stamp on the hand, and Gallagher was subjected to a brutal foul. Referee Stephanie Frappart showed four yellow cards within the first 30 minutes, confirming Southgate’s pre-match warning that Australia had come to the game with a combative mindset.

However, Australia also displayed their intent to play attacking football. Goalkeeper Matthew Ryan was unafraid to play out from the back, drawing England’s press and often breaking through it. James Maddison was England’s designated playmaker, but it was Australia’s Keanu Baccus who truly orchestrated the game with his clever flicks and quick turns, frequently bypassing England’s midfield to launch dangerous attacks.

Watkins had the best chances for England in the first half, but was denied by resolute defending and an unlucky shot against the post. Dunk provided a defensive highlight for England when he bravely blocked a goal-bound effort from Ryan Strain just before halftime.

England returned after the break with renewed energy, and their persistence paid off after just 12 minutes. Alexander-Arnold lofted a high ball into the Australian box, which found Grealish lurking behind the defensive line. Grealish’s left-footed shot was heading for the post, but Watkins ensured the ball crossed the line with a tap-in. Watkins, however, insisted that the shot was not going in, leading to a slightly bemused celebration between the two players.

Australia finished the game strongly and came close to equalizing when Connor Metcalfe hit the post with a free header late in the match. Awer Mabil’s lively skills caused problems for the England defense, with Dunk once again providing crucial last-ditch defending to clear a threatening low cross.

Towards the end, several of England’s established stars, including Phil Foden, Marcus Rashford, John Stones, Kieran Trippier, and Kalvin Phillips, were brought on for some fine-tuning ahead of the crucial Euro 2024 qualifier against Italy. Southgate will undoubtedly give his all against Italy, as this performance suggests that England cannot afford to be complacent.


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