Liverpool’s Harvey Elliott lit up Goodison Park as England U21s eased past Northern Ireland 3-0 on Tuesday.
Reds team-mate Tyler Morton, on loan at Hull, opened the scoring with his first for the U21s. It leaves them second in Group F, three points behind Ukraine who beat Azerbaijan 1-0.
In what looks increasingly likely to be a straight shootout for the group win, the pair play each other in the penultimate game in October, and the Young Lions are in the rare position of playing catch-up.
It is clearly a chase they can achieve and, while boss Lee Carsley will say otherwise, the last game with his youngsters until March was a stroll after they dominated from the off, the gulf in class obvious.
Everton defender Jarrad Branthwaite, captain on home turf, was the first to waste a decent opening when he failed to connect with Tino Livramento’s knock-back as England struggled to find an early way past the robust Northern Ireland backline, marshalled by Ruairi McConville and Michael Forbes.
Noni Madueke curled wide after 20 minutes and Jay Stansfield miscued a half-volley from Hayden Hackney’s cross but they were half-chances, rather than the Young Lions slicing through their opponents.
They continued to dominate and press, James Trafford a spectator in goal, and Elliott shot wide but the killer touch continued to elude the hosts – until Northern Ireland finally wilted under the pressure after 31 minutes.
That it came from a misplaced cross mattered little as Madueke’s centre evaded Stansfield but was only cleared to Morton on the edge of the area and the midfielder drilled low into the corner.
From there, an England victory was rarely in doubt. Without Cole Palmer and Rico Lewis, elevated to the senior squad last week, they were perhaps missing a zip centrally but Madueke and Jamie Bynoe-Gittens offered enough on the flanks.
Indeed, Chelsea’s Madueke teed up Hackney to shoot over before Elliott doubled the lead after 50 minutes.
The Liverpool player was clattered by Terry Devlin 25 yards out before exacting perfect revenge by bending a free-kick into the bottom corner.
Madueke was denied by Josh Clarke as England hunted a third and it was Elliott who found it with 10 minutes left. The 20-year-old ran onto Morton’s pass, exposing a space in the Northern Ireland midfield, and produced a fine chip to lob the onrushing Clarke.
There was still time for Elliott to hunt a hat-trick but he was thwarted by a fine Clarke save.
Carsley challenges Elliott to earn regular Liverpool place
Elliott now has five goals in Group F, with England second behind Ukraine, and Carsley wants to see more of the same.
He said: “It’s important he keep scoring and assisting because he’s going to be that kind of player.
“His stats and data for us are very, very high in terms of his attacking actions around the box, the amount of chances he creates for other players but more importantly, his work rate and the way he presses the ball.
“He has to keep scoring and assisting, it’s a big part of his game. The most important thing for a lot of the players is just staying in the race.
“Making sure you keep yourself fit, making sure your attitude is in the right place and you’re trying to make yourself selectable.
“Then, when you get the opportunity, taking it. To be a young player and to play in the Premier League week in, week out is a big ask so making sure you’re putting yourself in a position to do that is a big thing.
“He’s come into camp looking really fit, really sharp. He’s doing the right things. That’s all he can do. When he’s come on for Liverpool he’s made a really good impact and I see that continuing.”