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No one expected Bukayo Saka to play at Euro 2020 - is England's 'slippery eel' now undroppable?

Bukayo Saka
(Image credit: PA Images)

Kick-off was still more than six hours away, but already bafflement was sweeping across much of England. Gareth Southgate's team to face the Czech Republic in the last Euro 2020 group game had started to leak out in the press, and one name was taking people by surprise.

"Saka? Over Rashford, Sancho and Foden... are you kidding me?!" one responded online. "Southgate has well and truly lost it," another wrote.

In all of the debate about who should play either side of Harry Kane for the Three Lions, Bukayo Saka's name had barely received a mention. It seemed like a battle for two places, between five candidates: Raheem Sterling, Phil Foden, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho and Marcus Rashford.

Saka appeared to be the 19-year-old in the squad for experience - so young that even Foden and Sancho seem like pensioners in comparison. His time would come in the future, but right now, the competition for places out wide was just too fierce. Few expected him to actually play at Euro 2020. Had squads been the usual 23 players rather than 26, he may not have even made it at all.

Before the Czech Republic game had even reached half time though, the Arsenal man had transformed himself from the fringiest of fringe players, into a player who may now be very hard to leave out.

Bukayo Saka

(Image credit: PA Images)

If some fans were puzzled as to why Saka had been chosen to start England's final group game, Southgate knew exactly why - and so did Arsenal supporters.

The answer lay in the events of April 15, in the Sinobo Stadium in Prague. That night, Arsenal faced Slavia Prague in the second leg of a Europa League quarter final, needing to score at least once after a disappointing 1-1 draw in the first leg at the Emirates.

In fact, the Gunners scored four times that night, to progress to the semi finals with ease. Saka caused problems from the very start, and Arsenal led 3-0 inside 25 minutes. First he drove in from the right flank to create a goal that was disallowed for offside, then he won a penalty, then he cut inside the full back once more to fire in a goal of his own. The tie was done with 65 minutes still to play.

Slavia's left back that night was subbed at half time to avoid more humiliation. His name was Jan Boril, and he also happens to be the Czech Republic's left back at Euro 2020.

Knowing that Saka would be absolutely the last person that Boril would want to see again just two months later, Southgate selected the teenager over Jadon Sancho, and let him wreak havoc once more.

Saka obliged, doing the damage early on once more, driving upfield with the ball to begin the move that led to Raheem Sterling's 12th-minute goal, and generally making Boril's life a misery yet again.

His pace and dribbling skills gave England a directness on both flanks that maybe they hadn't quite had in the same way against Croatia and Scotland. It put the Czech Republic on the back foot from the start, giving England a control that they never relinquished.

"He was really outstanding," Southgate said. "He's been called a slippery eel because he can wriggle out of trouble. He can go on his left or right side - it's difficult for defenders to defend against."

Raheem Sterling had already made headlines during these Euros as the local boy done good - the kid who went to school just a quarter of a mile from Wembley, then bagged a fitting winner against Croatia, in England's first tournament match on home soil since 1996.

He's not the only local boy, though - Saka was born in Ealing, attending Greenford High School, just five miles from Wembley. Of Nigerian descent, his name Bukayo originates from the Yoruba tribe, and means 'adds to happiness'. 

Bukayo Saka

(Image credit: PA Images)

Saka certainly added to England's happiness against the Czech Republic, just as England added to his. "Wembley is just around the corner from my old house," he said after the game. "To hear the fans chanting my name was an amazing experience."

This was his first match at Wembley in front of a crowd - he'd played for England at the national stadium against Wales, the Republic of Ireland and Iceland, but all were behind closed doors.

In truth, even if few expected it to come in the group stage of Euro 2020, he'd been edging ever closer to a moment like this. Only Cesc Fabregas has reached 50 Premier League appearances for Arsenal at a younger age - after earning the Europa League's player of the week award for his performance in Prague, he then won the Gunners' player of the season honour too.

Two years ago, Arsenal spent £72m on another left-footed winger who likes to cut in from the right, Nicolas Pepe. Saka had barely featured for the first team at that point, but the academy graduate has outshone Pepe. His first England goal came just before this tournament too, against Austria in Middlesbrough.

After a man of the match performance against the Czechs, Southgate has a real dilemma now for the round of 16. England's attack fares best when there are runners around Harry Kane - most expected them to be Sterling and Sancho in the Three Lions' final group game, but in fact it was Sterling and Saka.

If Southgate opts to stick with that formula in the next round, that could leave a difficult decision to make in the centre, even without Mason Mount. The Chelsea midfielder will be available for the game, with his isolation ending 17 hours before kick-off, but will have missed so much training that Southgate is already dropping hints that it would be very difficult to play him from the start.

The fact that the England boss rested Foden against the Czech Republic - wary of him picking up a second yellow card that would earn a one-match ban, and insisting the Three Lions could not afford to lose both players for the same match - suggests that the Manchester City prodigy will start, possibly in the centre.

Jack Grealish largely played centrally in the final group game though, and played well enough to put himself firmly in contention too.

One way or another, one of Foden, Grealish or Saka will surely have to miss out. Would the England boss dare to drop Saka, his best player against the Czech Republic? He dared to play him in the first place when few expected it, so perhaps anything is possible. 

If he did leave the Arsenal man out though, he can probably guess what some of the social media comments are going to look like now. "Saka, not playing... are you kidding me?! Southgate has well and truly lost it."

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