By Tom Maston
Rotation and experience are the buzzwords that have emanated from the England camp during the Toulon Tournament as the Three Lions limped their way through the group stages. But with a place on podium at stake, it's time Gareth Southgate and his squad got serious.
That isn't to say they have played their four matches as if they are seeing their trip to southern France as an early summer holiday. Far from it. But the way in which they have seemingly done everything in their power to finish outside the top two in Group B has done little to suggest there is the depth within the key 18-21 age group whose importance was recently highlighted by the Football Association.
Though almost an entire eligible starting XI have not made the trip for reasons varying from injury to World Cup commitments, the fact that a forgettable win over Qatar is the best the side have produced thus far speaks volumes.
Southgate's insistence on rotating his 20-man roster hasn’t helped with consistency of performances, and though the tournament experience will be beneficial, winning matches is surely a much better habit.
Set against the backdrop of a dreadful summer 2013, where the U21s finished bottom of their European Championship group and the U20s finished bottom of their World Cup group, it deoes not represent progress.
Defensive issues have plagued the team throughout this summer's campaign, with all four goals conceded in the group stage down to errors from either the backline or the goalkeeper behind them, and with Portugal, their opponents in Sunday’s third-place play-off, one of the more potent attacking sides in the competition, it is hard to see them picking up a clean sheet.
Though James Ward-Prowse, Nathaniel Chalobah and Nathan Redmond should be rested having been dropped for the final group match against Colombia, it is difficult to see how Southgate’s side will be able to claim a third-placed finish that they barely deserve.
Fulham’s Cauley Woodrow should again lead the line having found the net in his two starts to date, and should he score again there is a chance he could replicate Alan Shearer and Emile Heskey in taking the tournament’s top scorer prize and a single shining light back to St George’s Park after an otherwise disappointing campaign.
Portugal, meanwhile, come into Sunday’s match on a low ebb having blown their chances of a final appearance with defeat to hosts France, but with tournament top scorer Helder Costa within their ranks they rightly start as favourites.
They may not possess the 'Golden Generation' that won this tournament in the early 1990s nor individuals on the same level as Cristiano Ronaldo, who played in the 2003 edition, but the conveyor belt of talent coming out of the country shows no sign of letting up.
England certainly aren’t huge outsiders, but their game must be raised if they are to record a first victory since the opening round of fixtures. Michael Keane’s probable return to defence should help keep the errors to a minimum while Ward-Prowse’s ability to control a match will again be tested.
But if England do end the encounter victorious then the FA can rightly claim sending a side to Toulon for the first time for nine years was a success. Anything else, and questions need to be asked as to whether it was all worth it.