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Soccer-Palmer cameo a chink of light amid England gloom



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By Mitch Phillips

COLOGNE, Germany, June 25 (Reuters) -As the final whistle sounded in Cologne, half the fans of the England team who topped their Euro 2024 group on five points had already left, while those backing the Slovenia side who scraped through in third were going ballistic along with their players.

Welcome to the world of England football, where a win and two draws and "controlling our own destiny", according to proud captain Harry Kane, drew jeers and boos as the players went through a somewhat desultory "lap of honour" - making sure they stayed out of range of a handful of plastic beer glasses lobbed their way by disgruntled fans.

Meanwhile, Slovenia's players and supporters wildly celebrated going through to the knockout stage of a major tournament for the first time, finishing level on points, goals and goals scored with Denmark in Group C after holding England to a 0-0 draw, but safe as one of the best third-placed teams.

England were already guaranteed progress but delivered another laboured display, barely troubling Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak all night.

England, with some of the best players in the best teams in the strongest leagues in the world, struggled to string three passes together in another joyless, sluggish display as they finished their three games against considerably lower ranked opponents with a tally of two goals.

They might point to the likes of the Netherlands, Italy, France and Belgium, who have also had problems getting past so-called lesser teams, but none of those "Big Guns" have looked so consistently flat and disjointed.

Summing up a forgettable group stage was the fact that Cole Palmer, thrown on as a late substitute, was probably England's best attacking force across three games, despite playing only 20 minutes.

The talented Chelsea midfielder immediately injected pace, energy and a willingness to try things, lifting the England fans back into full voice after the torpor that had sucked all the life out of them for the third game in a row.


MIDFIELD CONUNDRUM

Coach Gareth Southgate's midfield conundrum remains unsolved though. He replaced Trent Alexander-Arnold with Conor Gallagher in the starting midfield, but he was ineffective and replaced at halftime by Kobbie Mainoo.

Kane again appeared heavy-legged and Bukayo Saka, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham also looked shadows of the players who were on fire for their clubs a few weeks ago.

Southgate, as always, found only the positives - in public at least.

"I thought we were much improved with the ball. We have created some good openings and at the moment it is hard work for us," he said.

"We are not quite getting that break in front of goal. I understand the reactions but ... we tried to win the game by the changes we made. We put attacking players on the pitch."

On Palmer, he added: "He did very well. He finds space well and he makes chances and we were backing him to score at the end. They are young players and we are blooding them in a difficult environment but they had a good impact for us."

Despite the gloom, England are unbeaten in their last 14 Euro group stage matches going back to a defeat by France in the opening game in 2004 and, though they could face a tough last-16 game against the Netherlands, their path to a second successive final looks a little less challenging after Austria surprisingly finished above France in their group.

"If you look at previous tournaments we have played our best football in the knockout rounds - look at the last Euros against Germany, Ukraine and Denmark, so for sure there is more to come," Kane said.

"We can improve, we know that, but you have to enjoy these moments when you finish top."



Reporting by Mitch Phillips, Editing by Ken Ferris

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