CAPTAIN KANE SAVES ENGLAND AGAIN
England won a tournament opener for the first time since 2006 by beating Tunisia in Volgograd. Harry Kane did the damage with both goals, in a game marred by dreadful refereeing.
England’s starting eleven for their vital World Cup opener had been known for a few days. Ashley Young, Harry Maguire and Raheem Sterling all started for The Three Lions – looking to put right a dreadful record in opening matches at the World Cup. Tunisia fielded previously out-of-favour goalkeeper Mouez Hassen. Their captain was Sunderland’s talented number 10, Wahbi Khazri.
So much is wondered, questioned and said ahead of any England World Cup match; all mouths were silenced as England kicked off. The Three Lions, as has recently been the case, were straight out of the blocks in pacey and meaningful fashion. It took less than three minutes for Gareth Southgate’s side to carve out their first chance. Jordan Henderson’s loopy ball over the top allowed Dele Alli goal-side. His immediate cross was blocked well, but as Tunisia dawdled, Alli got a toe in to assist Jesse Lingard. The Manchester United attacker scuffed a shot from close range, which was brilliantly stubbed behind by Hassen’s trailing foot. England took just over five minutes to create their next chance, where Harry Kane’s blocked effort went behind for an England corner. Ashley Young’s corner was powered towards the goal by John Stones. But it was excellently clawed out by Hassen. There, though, to tap a simple rebound away was Harry Kane. England were in the ascendency; their World Cup party could start. Or it seemed like it could, anyway…
After injury caused a change of goalkeeper for Tunisia, Jordan Henderson provided newcomer Farouk Ben Mustapha with his first chance to handle the ball: making an easy enough save from a thunderous long-range volley. But as soon as that was all over, England’s night was about to become a whole lot harder. French-born winger Dylan Bronn planted a rare cross into the box for Tunisia, which Kyle Walker decided to leave for Kieran Trippier. In doing so, he fended striker Fakhreddine Ben Youssef off with a simple arm. Ben Youssef seemed to throw his face against Walker’s elbow, the referee pointed to the spot, and most remarkably, VAR remained unmoved back in Moscow. Tunisia had earned a cheap chance to regain equality. Midfielder Ferjani Sassi stepped up to score, the ball flirting with Jordan Pickford’s outstretched fingertips on its way in.
Just minutes later, England’s penalty controversy continued as Harry Kane was clearly wrestled to the ground in the box. The referee was, for whatever reason, not interested, and so play went on. Dele Alli’s flicked header landed perfectly for a simple close-in Stones volley. The Manchester City man felt the pressure though, scuffing a seemingly easy chance nowhere near the goal. England were struggling to halftime, but had one final chance to go into the break ahead. A beautifully clipped Trippier through-ball was taken down well by Lingard. The midfielder lifted the ball over the keeper, but it rolled against the post and wide. England had kept coming close, but went into the break level at 1-1.
Tunisia came out racing in the second period, sustaining possession for the first few minutes. England’s style of play, that had worked so well in post-qualification friendlies, just wasn’t working. They looked laboured, ponderous and stuck for ideas. They were effective from corners though, but when another came in, Harry Kane was evidently bundled to the ground, yet again. Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young missed direct freekicks, but Gareth Southgate had already made his first change by then. Marcus Rashford had replaced Raheem Sterling. After wild efforts from Naïm Sliti and Wahbi Khazri for Tunisia, Southgate was at it again, replacing Dele Alli with Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
The match entered its dreaded final stage. England’s players looked lethargic, with substitutes Rashford and Loftus-Cheek looking as lively as any. Tunisia committed yet more niggly fouls to further break up play, but England won a stoppage-time corner thanks to a mistake from substitute Mohamed Ben Amor. Kieran Trippier stepped up to take it, with all eyes on Harry Kane and whether he would be helped to the ground yet again. Harry Maguire did well to win the first header, which fell to a bafflingly unmarked Kane. The ball seemed to take an age to drop down towards him. All the time Kane was stretching his neck muscles in search of a big header for a big finish. When it did drop down, Kane powered the ball home for England’s precious winner. The Three Lions let all their relief and passion flood out, as they wheeled towards the England fans to celebrate an overall deserved victory. Eric Dier was brought on to close the game out. England, together, did just that.
Ahead of Sunday’s meeting with the already-defeated Panama, Gareth Southgate’s lions can now prepare free of pressure. It must be said that the refereeing decisions largely contributed to England’s need for a stoppage-time winner. But a stoppage-time winner they got, and deserved, nonetheless. It ended in the Volgograd Arena, Tunisia 1-2 England. Spain, Portugal, Argentina, Germany and Brazil all failed to win their openers. England didn’t.