England kicked off their first game of the 2018 World Cup in Volgrograd, Monday night. 47 year old, former midfielder and defender and head coach for England, Gareth Southgate, set up his squad in a 3-5-2 formation, a seemingly risky affair. Southgate’s side dominated the first half, Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard played off Sterling and Harry Kane with Jordan Henderson holding up the midfield behind them. England played it safe with the routine back five as Kieran Trippier at right wing back position, with former Watford player Ashley Young as left wing. Harry Maguire was placed on the left of the three centre backs with liability John Stones in the middle and Kyle Walker on the right. England’s no.1 under Southgate, Jordan Pickford was in goal completing the starting 11 for the Lions. Interestingly, Marcus Rashford was not included in the starting team even after his screamer in England’s final warm up game against Costa Rica.
England started superbly, showing pace and desire, taking total control over Tunisia from the kick off. Jesse Lingard pressing forward resulted in Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen having to make a left foot save just before Raheem Sterling missed a magnificent chance, but blazing a shot wide. The Lions continued to create chances and took the lead after only 11 minutes. Young’s in-swinging corner was met by a thunderous goal bound header from John Stones, which Hassen did well to punch away, but Kane was first to the rebound and England were on their way. However, the optimism soon turned to despair when in the 35th minute, against the run of play, Tunisia equalised from a dubiously awarded penalty given when Walker, under no immediate pressure, blocked Ben Youssef with his elbow. Southgate and his players argued Columbian referee Wilmar Roldan’s verdict, but the penalty decision was not overturned, even with the evidence from VAR technology. Pickford narrowly missed saving Sassi’s penalty kick, planted into the bottom left corner of the net, now it was game on. For the remainder of the first half, the ball stayed in England’s attacking half of the pitch. Stones combining with Lingard came close to restoring the lead, hitting the wrong side of the post just before the half time whistle blew. While England fans were feeling optimistic, after a positive first 45 minute display, the second half unfolded in a more laboured way for England with a general lack of intensity. England admittedly appeared as if they were sitting back, almost comfortable at the prospect of an inevitable draw. Kane was tightly marked during set pieces, and in fact was clearly wrestled to the ground in the penalty area on a few occasions, as the game became a dull spectacle. The match needed a change and thankfully Southgate provided the necessary substitutions, firstly the ineffective Sterling off for Marcus Rashford in the 69th minute followed 11 minutes later with Ruben Loftus-Cheek replacing an off a suspected injured Alli. Both players introduced, potentially providing England the necessary spark to get a much needed win. With time desperately running out Trippier’s excellent corner kick was flicked on by Maguire with Captain Kane at the far post heading in the winner, sending England fans at home and abroad into euphoria.
As a whole England were the better team by some distance and deserved the 3 points, but clearly need to take their chances if they are to advance in the later stages of the competition. Belgium also started well and head Group G thanks to an excellent 3-0 victory over Panama. England will go into their next game against Panama, on Sunday 24th June at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium, with confidence and energy. If they grab a win on Sunday their game against Belgium will likely be the group decider.
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