'He's exceptionally quick' - Ireland wary of Man United youngster's threat ahead of Sweden showdown

Anthony Elanga has six goals from six matches in the campaign thus far.

Anthony Elanga has already made two Premier League appearances for Man United.
Anthony Elanga has already made two Premier League appearances for Man United.
Image: Alamy Stock Photo

IRELAND U21S face a formidable task in the form of Sweden at Tallaght Stadium tomorrow night (kick-off: 7pm).

Jim Crawford’s side currently trail their rivals by seven points in the group.

A win on Tuesday for the hosts, therefore, is essential to keep alive any realistic hopes of qualification for the European Championships.

Yet their opponents have yet to lose any of their six group matches.

Moreover, in Anthony Elanga, they possess a potential star in the making.

Having only made his debut at U21 level last June, the 19-year-old left-sided attacker has six goals from six matches in the group so far.

The only fixtures he has failed to score were the two group games where Sweden have dropped points — respective 1-1 draws with Bosnia and Italy

The son of former Cameroon international footballer Joseph Elanga, he played twice for Man United in the Premier League last season, scoring when handed a start for the final game of the season against Wolves.

Unsurprisingly, Elanga’s name crops up immediately when Crawford is asked about the threat posed by Sweden.

“He plays wide left. He’s exceptionally quick. He’s scored for Manchester United as well. He scored the other day against Bosnia. He’s a big threat. The boy [Amin] Sarr up top, he’s quick and will cause us problems.

“In midfield, there’s real movement and rotation. They like to combine and open you up centrally. They’ve got two full-backs who offer the width and aren’t afraid to get forward.

“So they’re an attacking team, a very good team and I’m looking forward to the game and the challenge, as are the players. It’s another step in their development and a step for us as coaches to see what this group can offer.

“Probably the good thing for them is Stephen Kenny will be there tomorrow to look at the talent. So it’s an unbelievable platform for them.”

On Sweden’s strengths, he continues: “They drew with Italy already and they went toe-to-toe with Italy in terms of playing ball. They’ll try to play through the thirds when they can and get the ball up to their strikers. You’ll see it tomorrow. They’re very flexible in their formations — there’s rotation everywhere.

“It’s about us concentrating, good communication between players, and not getting side-tracked and following players into areas where they want you to go. That defensive side of the game is about us staying together and defending as a team.”

Crawford says there will be starting XI changes from Friday’s 2-0 loss against Italy to “freshen it up”. However, he says the team won’t deviate from their usual approach or mentality despite the must-win nature of the game.

“We’re all about concentrating on process and what have you. We’ve been working hard on that since the very first day we came in — our identity, our style of play.

“We were disappointed at times against Italy, we were a little bit nervous in possession. I thought we can be better than that.

“We showed passages where we were good, we were confident on the ball. We opened up Italy at times and we need more of that in the game tomorrow.

“But I’m a firm believer in working very hard in the different aspects of the game. It all comes under that process umbrella.

“We have a good group. There have been absolutely no questions [over the approach] or what have you. We open it up to the floor as well, we’re very open like that as a coaching staff and I think that’s important to get buy-in from the players.”

Having suffered two successive losses, Crawford’s side are in the midst of a difficult run much like the Irish senior team were until recently.

The entire squad sat together and watched Stephen Kenny’s team’s 3-0 win over Luxembourg on Sunday, and Crawford says his men can take inspiration from their counterparts’ upturn in form.

“Of course, you can. I think the biggest driver with all this is the amount of 21s lads who have made a step up.

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“I think there were six involved in the senior team last night — Aaron Connolly was missing yesterday, he’d be another one. So seven players have stepped from 21s to the senior team.

“So for me, if we talk about what is a success with the 21s, you want to qualify, there’s no doubt about it. You want to put players out of their comfort zone. Get them to understand how to qualify for finals, playing big games and that’s where you get real development.

“So regarding inspiration, yeah. I saw Stephen and his coaching staff turn it around, you can’t help but get inspired by that.

“But the big thing from a 21s perspective is that there is an open pathway there and a lot of young lads that got on the pitch last night too, so it’s all worthwhile.”

One player who could potentially be the next one to graduate from the 21s to the senior setup is Will Smallbone.

The midfielder is highly rated at Southampton, and already has 12 Premier League appearances under his belt.

However, an ACL injury suffered against Leicester last January kept him out of action for almost a year.

Smallbone made his return to the Saints’ first-team amid a League Cup defeat to Chelsea on penalties last month.

Similarly, Friday saw his long-awaited return for the Ireland U21s, as he played 76 minutes of the loss to Italy as he continues his recovery.

“He did well,” says Crawford. “He’s very comfortable on the ball. He’s got real energy, which is what you want in that position where he played the other day. He’s a fantastic pro and it’s all about attitude.

“You can have all the talent in the world and if you don’t have the right attitude, you won’t go anywhere. But he’s got both the talent and the attitude. I do not doubt that when he gets fitter — I certainly think he’s got a bit to go — I think we’ll see a different player in March.

“You’d like to think it will be a challenge for him to break into Southampton’s first team. But he certainly is a real prospect and somebody who loves playing for Ireland. He’s great to have around the place and I just admire how he’s come back from such a serious injury where he was on the crest of a wave with Southampton, he was playing in their first team and he’s looked after himself, there’s no doubt about it. That’s why he’s here. I’m looking forward to him playing in quite a few more 21s games.”  

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Paul Fennessy

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