England’s bruising build-up proved too much to cope with as Gareth Southgate’s men just fell short in their Under-21 European Championship Group B opener against Portugal.
Things have unravelled for the Young Lions in the Czech Republic, with John Stones ruled out for two games with suspected concussion and a knee injury forcing Saido Berahino to withdraw just hours before kick-off.
Those absences were keenly felt in Uherske Hradiste as a solid, battling display was not quite enough against classy Portugal, with Joao Mario’s second-half strike securing a 1-0 triumph which extends England’s six-year wait for a finals win.
Football Association chairman Greg Dyke and England assistant manager Ray Lewington were at the Mestsky Fotbalovy Stadion as the Young Lions got their fifth straight finals appearance under way, but they witnessed a defeat which only increases the chances of a third successive group-stage exit.
The teams traded blows from the outset and the first half witnessed 19 shots, with Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard coming closest for England while Jack Butland prevented Liam Moore from inadvertently gifting their opponents an early lead.
Portugal edged the first half but scored the game’s only goal against the run of play, with Mario reacting quickest after man-of-the-match Bernardo Silva’s strike came back off the post and Butland.
The Young Lions pushed for a leveller but were unable to rustle one up, heightening the importance of Sunday’s clash with Sweden in Olomouc.
Southgate will be able to call upon Benik Afobe for that match, with the Wolves striker heading to Czech Republic after top scorer Berahino was ruled out with a knee injury.
The West Brom striker travelled to Uherske Hradiste to cheer on his team-mates – as did Stones, despite suspected concussion ruling him of this match and Sunday’s encounter against Sweden.
Portugal had no such issues and named a strong line-up boasting six senior internationals, but the Young Lions threatened to strike the first blow with only Ricardo Esgaio’s last-ditch intervention prevented Nathan Redmond’s lovely, low cross finding Kane.
James Ward-Prowse soon bent over from the edge of the box, but this was far from one-way traffic and rusty centre-back Moore would have given Portugal the lead was it not for a fine, reaction save from Butland.
It began an end-to-end theme which continued throughout the first half, with Redmond stinging the palms of Jose Sa before Silva and Mario got shots away.
Lingard, impressing in place of Berahino, came close with an audacious strike, before sending a cross bound for Kane until Paulo Oliveira got in the way.
Portugal captain Sergio Oliveira and Ricardo had efforts, with Redmond then over-running a clever Tom Carroll flick as the sides continued to trade blows.
Kane was growing as a presence as the opening period progressed and, having scared goalkeeper Sa into a mis-kick, twice came close from distance in quick succession.
First the frontman rolled his marker and hit a 25-yard strike that the Portuguese goalkeeper did well to tip around the post, before again trying his luck with a low effort just wide of the near post.
Tiago Ilori skimmed a header wide at the other end but England again came close after as Nathaniel Chalobah burst through impressively and played in Lingard, whose curling right-footed strike went just wide.
England continued in the ascendancy when played resumed, with Redmond hitting a powerful drive that Sa stopped unconvincingly.
The Portugal goalkeeper breathed a sigh of relief as Ward-Prowse’s fine free-kick curled just wide from 20 yards – his final act before Southgate brought on Will Hughes.
They were let-offs Rui Jorge’s side capitalised on in the 57th minute, just moments after Raphael Guerreiro fired a warning shot.
An unfortunate bounce off Luke Garbutt put Silva through on goal and after his effort came back off the post Mario reacted quickest to strike into the empty net.
Ricardo flicked a header wide as Portugal looked to increase an advantage that Kane tried to cancel out with a deflected long-range strike and then a looping header.
Danny Ings and Alex Pritchard were brought on in a bid to give England added attacking impetus, with the latter soon playing through Kane only for his Tottenham team-mate to strike straight at Sa.
Ings’ first-time shot flew just over and Pritchard flashed wide either side of a deflected William Carvalho shot, but, try as they might, there was to be no leveller, with Sa saving a wonderful late Carl Jenkinson header.