England Cruise Past Senegal and Now Face France

England 3–0 Senegal

How far England have come. It was their emotional penalty shootout win over the robust Colombians in Moscow at this stage of the last World Cup that really kickstarted Gareth Southgate’s reign as England manager. He’d been in the job two years, but overseeing England’s first-ever World Cup penalty shootout win marked a turning point in the fortunes of the national team.

That paved the way for England to change their narrative in the intervening four and a half years. They faced Senegal in this World Cup round of 16 tie, wary of the African champions’ threat but fully accepting the title of favourites.

For 35 minutes it was tense. You could sense at the Al Bayt Stadium that things had ramped up and the knockout stages of this tournament had begun. Then Jude Bellingham assisted his rather more experienced midfield partner Jordan Henderson for England’s opener and suddenly they were off. Rampant England were rampant again.

England were in a spot of bother early on as nerves caused a couple of early mistake. Harry Maguire made one, and Krépin Diatta was soon crossing for Boulaye Dia, before Ismaïla Sarr blazed over.

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Then Bukayo Saka played a poor pass right into the path of an opponent. Dia shot from close range, forcing Jordan Pickford into a superb outstretched save.

A lot has been made of the absence of Senegal’s best player Sadio Mané at this tournament. But through injury and suspension, they had no Cheikhou Kouyaté or Idrissa Gueye respectively. England’s only absentee was Raheem Sterling: unavailable because he has flown back to London after armed robbers broke into his London home with his family inside. He may not return for the rest of the tournament.

England turned the screw, showed their class, and took the lead as the first half matured. Harry Kane played a sumptuous ball through Senegal’s unset defence for Bellingham, drifting in behind and causing trouble. Bellingham spotted the late dart into the box of Henderson, retaining his place after a typically battling performance against Wales. Bellingham squared for Henderson to sweep in his first tournament goal in his sixth England tournament. The two of them locked heads in celebration; midfielders young and old, brave and bold.

After all the talk about England’s sensational youngsters — Bellingham, Saka, Phil Foden, and Marcus Rashford who came off the bench here — it was their 32-year-old No8 who had set them on their way.

England blossomed. Saka’s pull-back for Kane was behind the Tottenham striker and Kane scraped over. Then Bellingham nicked the ball with Senegal well advanced and hunting their equaliser in the final minute of first-half stoppage time. The Borussia Dortmund starlet tore away from his own box, outmuscled his marker, nearly falling to his feet, but kept his balance to tap left to Foden.

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Senegal had carelessly overcommitted against one of the world’s best counter-attacking outfits. England had a two-on-one now and looked sure to double their lead. Foden played to Kane past the bemused Kalidou Koulibaly of Chelsea. Kane took one touch and then slammed past Édouard Mendy. Kane had finally scored his first of the tournament after registering three assists in the group stage. It was the last kick of a half in which England had started slowly but totally dominated.

There was always the threat of Senegal’s firepower after the break. But it was a psychological threat that seldom materialised. They made three changes at the break but it barely changed the complexion of the game. Southgate’s England have become too savvy, too professional to lose their concentration sufficiently to also lose a 2–0 lead in a match of this importance. You trust England to do what they need to do once ahead. That couldn’t be said about England teams of the past, and it can’t be said about all of the sides England are supposed to fear as they progress in this tournament.

Their pressing was relentless, and so was their captain. Kane popped up everywhere — dropping into midfield to spray wide, and then shooting fiercely at Mendy, causing the goalkeeper problems.

Luke Shaw played Kane in down the left channel, and then Foden took over, reaching the byline and crossing low. Saka raced in and showed such intelligence to dink over Mendy’s leg. It was a cheeky finish from a player who can do little wrong for club or country at the moment. Saka blew a kiss to family in the crowd — and fans started writing ‘ENGLAND’ into the quarter-final slot on their World Cup wallcharts.

Jack Grealish and Rashford got the chance to run at Senegal’s tiring defence as the contest part of this contest slowly evaporated. England sensed that the match had been won. And it had.

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When referee Ivan Barton blew for the final time, it was noticeable how devoid of emotion, how measured, England’s players looked. It was not that they’d taken Aliou Cissé’s Senegal lightly. It was not that they weren’t pleased to progress. It was simply a sign of changing expectations.

When England celebrated that penalty success against Colombia four years ago, they did so with unbridled joy. And with understandable shock that they had done something that the hefty weight of the England shirt just didn’t allow for. They’d won a knockout match. They’d won it on penalties. That wasn’t supposed to happen.

Perhaps if this victory over Senegal had been via spot-kicks, emotion may have flooded from their faces more expressively. But they would still have been more measured than in the chaotic bundles and grins of four years ago. England have matured. They’ve become tournament heavyweights. They expect to win games like this. Thanks to goals from Henderson, Kane and Saka, they duly won 3–0.

Kyle Walker must rest his sacred legs now, must recharge the afterburners. It’s Kylian Mbappé next. It’s France, the world champions, next. World Cups, hey? It doesn’t get any easier, does it…

But England must continue to be bold and brave. They have enough to knock the French out.

Written by Dom Smith; sub-edited by Luke Widdowson

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