Grealish makes the all-important difference to lift England into Euro quarters

LONDON — Pep Guardiola wants to make Jack Grealish a £100 million player this summer, and ask any England supporter right now and they will tell you that the Aston Villa midfielder is worth it after his decisive 22-minute cameo against Germany helped Gareth Southgate’s team to a 2-0 win and a place in the quarterfinals of Euro 2020.

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In fact, sources have told ESPN that Guardiola regards Grealish to be as important a target as Tottenham striker Harry Kane during this transfer window. Kane may well be Guardiola’s ideal replacement for Sergio Aguero, but the Spaniard has been a long-term admirer of Grealish, and his match-winning impact against the Germans showed just why the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich coach rates the 25-year-old so highly.

The question now is whether he has finally done enough to persuade England manager Southgate to rival Guardiola as his biggest fan.

Southgate has needed more convincing than most about Grealish’s qualities. His substitute appearance against Germany was only his 10th senior cap — his first came as recently as Sept. 2020, when he made his full debut during 0-0 draw against Denmark in Copenhagen.

Southgate’s reservations about the player have not just been about his work off the ball and ability to contribute defensively, but also his character off the field. Grealish himself admitted last season that he had to mature as a person because, ‘I thought I was Jack from Solihull that could go out and do what you want.’

Grealish’s reputation as a ‘Jack the Lad’ overshadowed his football ability and didn’t help his cause with Southgate, who has repeatedly spoken about the need for his players to be of the right character.

Since returning to the Premier League with Aston Villa two years ago, though, Grealish has put his football ability to the forefront of the conversation and that is why he is now so high on Guardiola’s wish list. And after his impact against Germany, Southgate will surely now banish any lingering concerns about Grealish by putting him in England’s starting line-up for the remainder of this tournament.

He made the crucial difference against Germany and he could yet turn out to be the man who unlocks the door for England to win their first major tournament since the 1966 World Cup.

When the dust settles on England’s victory, it will only be the scoreline and its significance which is remembered. The dour, uninspiring performance for the majority of the game will, quite rightly, be forgotten quickly. It’s a results business and England got the win they so desperately wanted.

But until Grealish was introduced as a 68th-minute replacement for Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka, England were devoid of creativity and flair. It was a tough watch, with Kane once again starved of service and Raheem Sterling cutting a frustrated figure on the right flank.

Sterling was the only player offering any kind of cutting edge. The City winger, England’s leading scorer with 3 goals in the tournament, threatened Germany with his pace and readiness to take opponents on, but he does not possess the ability to see the pass that Grealish has.

Every time Grealish appeared on the big screen or warmed-up on the touchline, the home supporters roared their approval and sang his name, hoping that the clamour would make a difference and force Southgate into finally putting him on the pitch.

And when he did get on, he made an immediate impact by getting the ball and keeping it in German territory. In simple terms, he offered England a player with technique and vision and, within eight minutes, he had sparked the move for the first goal of the game by releasing Luke Shaw on the left before seeing Sterling direct the Manchester United defender’s cross past goalkeeper Manuel Neuer from six yards out.

It was the turning point in the game and lifted the air of caution from the team. It also banished the nervous tension among the fans, as the fan-favourite had come on and changed the whole complexion of the game. Eleven minutes later, Grealish made another decisive contribution by breaking into the penalty area and crossing for Kane to make the game safe with a headed goal from close range.

Maybe it was Southgate’s plan all along to hold Grealish back until Germany’s defenders began to tire, but whatever the tactics, he now has to find a way to put him in from the start.

“With Jack, as with a few others, we just have to maximize what is possible. With him and [Jordan Henderson], they both missed 14 weeks of the season. These games are intense, with and without the ball,” said Southgate about Grealish afterwards.

“We know he is a really special talent and he can have a big impact. As he did. It is a conversation I had with him yesterday.

“We have so many good attacking options and it is hard to give them the love they need. They need to feel that. Their acceptance of that across the board; they have understood and sacrificed themselves for the group. Only by doing that do we get to the stage that we are.”

Whether it is Sweden or Ukraine that England face in Saturday’s quarterfinal in Rome, and then either Denmark or Czech Republic in the semifinals if they progress to the last four, they will be favourites to win against teams who are not in the same class as Germany. England will have to be on the front foot and take the initiative in these games and will need Grealish at the front and centre of everything if they are to truly take advantage of their attacking riches.

He has started just one game so far at Euro 2020 — against potential semi-final opponents Czech Republic — but he came of age against Germany and simply can’t be held back any longer. After just 115 minutes of football at the tournament, he has more assists, most carries into the 18-yard box and has drawn more fouls than any other player in Southgate’s squad.

Grealish makes a difference. Just ask Germany.

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