Callum Hudson-Odoi dazzles in the limelight on his first England start

There was a period of this contest when Callum Hudson-Odoi was unplayable. Panicked Montenegrin defenders crumpled to the turf as he swerved beyond them at pace, the winger leaving a trail of markers floored in his wake. This was his stage, that jaw-dropping spell at the start of the second half seized as an opportunity to showcase lavish talent. It is baffling to contemplate that this was a player yet to make a Premier League start.

No wonder he is coveted by Bayern Munich and no wonder Chelsea are so eager to retain his services, their contract offer likely to be improved in the months ahead as they try to convince him to commit. Three times the full debutant had darted away from Filip Stojkovic or left Adam Marusic or Mirko Ivanic dazed and confused. Twice he picked out Raheem Sterling at the far post with pinpoint accuracy, stretching opponents whose early lead had been such a deception. He darted infield himself on the third occasion, feigning to shoot to tip defenders off balance and eke out that extra yard of space, before skimming away a shot which Danijel Petkovic did well to turn behind for a corner.

This was a player having the same riotous fun he once enjoyed bamboozling friends in the cages of south London, on the playing fields of Whitgift school, and in Chelsea’s all-conquering youth system. His was a simple joy, a youngster undaunted by the occasion and dazzling in the limelight. It is something to enter the fray when a match is already won and revelling in the ease of it all at a jubilant Wembley, as Hudson-Odoi did against the Czech Republic last Friday when becoming England’s youngest debutant in a competitive game. It is quite another to thrive on what was, initially at least, an awkward occasion away from home amid a febrile atmosphere in Podgorica.

Yet a player who was eight days old when David Beckham first captained his country never looked even vaguely fazed. He is taking this all in his stride, doing what comes so naturally. No one created more chances in the tighter of the two halves. It was Hudson-Odoi, with the game level seven minutes from the interval, who cut inside off the left flank away from those familiar foes, Marusic and Stojkovic, to whip away a shot which was touched beyond Petkovic by Ross Barkley to establish the lead. “It is not about me, it is a team performance,” said Hudson-Odoi, but he stood out in a dominant display.

The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.

It will be intriguing to see whether that elusive first Premier League start now comes at Cardiff on Sunday. Certainly, he will return to his club to find a clamour for his inclusion that has never been louder. The 18-year-old’s progress into the senior England side has not reflected particularly well on Maurizio Sarri given the winger has been given less than two hours of Premier League football this term. The Chelsea manager has consistently pointed to the fact that his more experienced options, players he trusts more readily – perhaps justifiably given the occasional naivety of youth and given that his job seems permanently on the line – have rarely been unavailable.

Sarri has offered the youngster some game time – 413 minutes in the Europa League and 300 in the domestic cup competitions to go with the 119 in the top-flight – even if the head coach has spent the last few months warning of the perils of heightened expectation. “I am convinced [of his quality] but he will not arrive at the top of his game until he is 22 or 23,” he said this month. “It’s very dangerous, at 18, to have this pressure.”

The frustration has been an underlying short-termism to selection. Hudson-Odoi, like Pedro, Willian and Eden Hazard, is out of contract in 2020 and being courted aggressively by Bayern. As the current poster boy for the Chelsea academy, he will surely be a player around whom the club want to build the future.

In other respects, Sarri has a point. There was evidence here of why Hudson-Odoi must still work on the defensive phase of his game. That early goal shipped at the end of Montenegro’s first attack of any substance exposed a lack of defensive nous. Zarko Tomasevic beat him in the air too easily at Stefan Savic’s crossfield pass, but more alarming was the teenager’s failure to react as Marko Vesovic burst away. The untracked Legia Warsaw player eventually curled a shot beyond Jordan Pickford. Kyle Walker, barking instructions at his young teammate, made it clear thereafter that defensive duties were not to be neglected.

But such discipline will come with greater game time. For now, Hudson-Odoi offers so much as a fearless, lavishly skilful and pacy attacking talent, the kind who can light up a team’s performance. England have now scored three goals or more in four of their last five games, having scored three or more in only three of Southgate’s first 28 in charge. They can seem irrepressible when they burst forward, whether it is Sterling or Hudson-Odoi, Jadon Sancho or Marcus Rashford slicing down the flanks. They, like Hudson-Odoi, are a joy to watch.


Leave a Reply

This website uses cookies. By continuing to use this site, you accept our use of cookies.