Gareth Southgate has been required to find the right words at the right time an awful lot recently. An hour before kick-off in Leuven, he did it again. ‘We’re looking forward to seeing him play,’ England’s manager said, as he discussed the prospect of Jack Grealish’s first competitive appearance. ‘It’s good to see him against top-level opponents. We are confident he can play well. We want him to do what he’s doing at his club.’ It was good to hear Southgate speak with enthusiasm about the Aston Villa midfielder. Grealish has been a recurring theme over the course of three international camps but the mention of his name has not always been greeted with warmth.
Jack Grealish sent a huge message to Gareth Southgate after impressing against Belgium The midfielder was England’s standout performer and the highlight of their 2-0 defeat Having improved defensively, the Gunners have struggled in front of goal this season… In September, Southgate was asked about Grealish’s initial absence from his squad and made it clear he had plenty to do to win him over. After an uplifting night against Wales at Wembley in October, the 50-year-old poured cold water on the idea Grealish could be this team’s, Paul Gascoigne. Even last week, before the Republic of Ireland friendly, Southgate pointed out that towards the end of last season – when Grealish was hailed as Aston Villa’s talisman – he had only contributed one goal in 22 appearances. Talent is good but, in international football, the end product is decisive.
Grealish, however, has never flinched. He’s listened to the debates, taken any criticisms on board and his form for Villa has been outstanding. Once Raheem Sterling was ruled out of this Nations League fixture with a minor injury, he had to be given his chance. To overlook him would have been grossly unfair. Grealish has continually taken on criticism and stepped up after an injury to Raheem Sterling ‘He’s getting used to the system we play (but) the players have great trust in him,’ Southgate added. ‘We don’t want to put too much pressure on him but he loves these types of games and he will love this occasion.’
He certainly did. There is something about watching Grealish that allows you to easily remember the innocence and the joy of the game; he plays with freedom, with enthusiasm bursting out of him. Even in an empty stadium, his mind was filled with wonderful possibilities. Things, it must be said, started slowly – in more ways than one. The first time Grealish got sight of the ball, in the fourth minute, he ended up being plunged into the playing surface following a rather crude challenge from Belgium central defender Jason Denayer.
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