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England's Jack Grealish. Photo: Getty

England's Jack Grealish. Photo: Getty

England's Jack Grealish. Photo: Getty

For almost an hour, the big winners were the England players who were not at Middlesbrough last night but then Jack Grealish gave manager Gareth Southgate a timely reminder that he can be the man to unlock doors.

Grealish had been kicked around the Riverside Stadium pitch for much of the first half and the start of the second, but each time he got up and it was the Aston Villa captain who finally carved open the Austria defence to gift a first England goal to Bukayo Saka in their 1-0 win over Austria last night.

Spotting the chance for a counter-attack, Grealish played a wonderful pass out to Harry Kane with the outside of his boot and charged into the penalty area where only a timely tackle denied him a goal, but the ball fell kindly for Saka to find the net.

England had struggled to create chances up to that point against an Austria team who hardly gave Grealish an inch of space and were happy to defend in numbers.

In fact, it had been Grealish who had provided an opening for Kane but his shot was saved and the England striker may have been called back for offside in any case had VAR been in use.

When he put a delicious second-half ball across the six-yard box, Grealish could not believe that substitute Dominic Calvert-Lewin had not been in position to net a second goal for England.

The way in which Grealish grinned as he took his place in the stands after being taken off with 20 minutes remaining suggested he was pleased with how his evening had gone.

This was not a vintage performance from Grealish, who is still feeling his way back from injury, but it did demonstrate how he can find a way through even the most stubborn of defences.

It remains to be seen whether that will prove enough to put real pressure on Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford and Mason Mount, who could not face Austria.

It seems inconceivable that Southgate could leave either Mount or Foden out of England’s first game against Croatia, given their brilliant form for Chelsea and Manchester City.

England certainly lacked some of the guile of Foden last night and Mount’s pressing and ability on the ball would have been welcomed.

But with Sterling and Rashford out of form for their clubs at the end of the season, Grealish offers Southgate a different option and his inclusion would certainly guarantee England win plenty of free-kicks.

Grealish missed three months of the Premier League season with a shin injury and only returned for Aston Villa’s final four games, of which he started the last two.

Understandably, he is still not at his free-flowing best and Southgate has been careful to stress that he needs to be careful with Grealish, who could break down if he is overloaded in the build up to the tournament.

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Southgate would have certainly winced on the three occasions he was hacked down in the opening 45 minutes, as Grealish won two free-kicks in dangerous positions from which England failed to profit.

He also rode some rough tackles for which he did not win free-kicks in the second period until his withdrawal, when ice was applied to his right shin, which looked like a precautionary, recovery measure, rather than anything for Southgate and England to worry about too much.

Like Grealish, Saka was on the end of some rough treatment in the first and second half, and the Arsenal star certainly made a contribution with his desire, determination and his goal – no matter how easy it was.

It may well be that Saka proves to be the utility man in Southgate’s squad and there was enough to suggest that he will not let anybody down if he is needed in the event of injuries or suspension.

Jesse Lingard, who started against Austria, was perhaps unlucky not to feature in Southgate’s final 26-man squad but Saka’s versatility and dependability make him a more than useful addition.

His positive attitude will also be good around the camp, which is important during what everybody hopes will be a long tournament.

The next big decision for Southgate may be whether or not to start with Grealish when the tournament kicks off.

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Telegraph Media Group Limited [2021]


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