June 18, 2018
The clock had ticked past the 90-minute mark when the corner came in. Harry Kane was there. He had told us he wanted to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo with a hat-trick of goals. He managed only two but this, undoubtedly, was the biggest moment yet of his international career and suddenly England’s opening game of the World Cup had the happy ending it deserved.
Harry Kane double ensures England defeat Tunisia in World Cup opener
Until that point, it had been threatening to be another case of the same old story and a familiar sense of deja vu. England, after all, had managed only five wins in their opening fixtures of either the World Cup or the European Championship since 1950.
Kane had already scored from one corner but Tunisia’s equaliser came from a penalty that could be described, at best, as generous – or, from England’s perspective, utterly needless – and for a long time it seemed as though Gareth Southgate’s team did not have the wit or creativity thereafter to turn their superiority into the hard currency of goals.
But when has it ever been straightforward with this team? Kane was lurking, unmarked, to head in Harry Maguire’s flick-on and, ultimately, nobody could say the result was unjust. What a difference that goal could make as well when a draw threatened serious ramifications for the rest of Group G.
Kane’s late, dramatic winner now means England can qualify for the knockout stages by beating Panama in Nizhy Novgorod on Sunday. Suddenly the final game against Belgium no longer carries the same threat and England will leave Volgograd reflecting on a hugely satisfying evening, full of drama and incident.
England were quick to the ball, slick with their passing and attacked with so much adventure there were countless occasions when they outnumbered their opponents at the back. The pressure on Tunisia was near-unremitting at times and even ignoring, for one moment, Kane’s goal it must have been encouraging for Southgate to see the vibrancy of his team, the number of chances they concocted and the desire of their midfielders to get into the opposition penalty area.
Unfortunately for Southgate, there was also a reminder here of England’s recurring ability to make life more difficult for themselves than necessary. On that front, nothing has changed. It was difficult at times to keep a running count of the number of chances – not just half-chances, but wonderful openings – England totted up. The problem was the conversion rate and, in the process, there was more evidence that Raheem Sterling, for all the goals he scores and sets up, also has an extraordinary number of open-goal misses in his portfolio.
The one he fluffed here was fairly staggering, somehow letting the ball strike both his feet rather than one. Yet in fairness to Sterling he was not the only one guilty of some erratic finishing during a wild, breathless opening half. Jesse Lingard also had a golden opportunity, at 1-0, to double England’s lead and, later on, prodded another shot against the outside of the post.
Harry Kane double ensures England defeat Tunisia in World Cup opener
John Stones wasted a gilt-edged chance shortly after Tunisia’s penalty, with Dele Alli’s looping back-header being turned against the crossbar moments earlier, and there was also some splendid goalkeeping from Mouez Hassen before he was forced off with a shoulder injury.
Hassen’s reflexes had denied Lingard after only two minutes and Tunisia’s goalkeeper was highly unfortunate for England’s goal bearing in the mind the sprawling save with which he clawed away the initial effort. That came from Stones, with a running header from Ashley Young’s 11th-minute corner. Kane was loitering with intent inside the six-yard area and turned in the rebound.
All of this felt a far cry from the last time we saw England in a major tournament, in that collective ordeal against Iceland in Euro 2016. Southgate’s men set off like a team in a hurry. They have had to be patient, five days into the tournament, and it quickly became apparent they were absolutely determined to make a favourable impression on the tournament.
Once they had the lead, however, they were far too slack in letting Tunisia back into the match, through a mix of penalty-box misses, some bad luck and, of course, the penalty that Kyle Walker gave away for blocking off Fakhredinne Ben Youssef in the 34th minute.
Yes, England are entitled to be aggrieved by the decision of the Colombian referee, Wilmar Roldan, and the exaggerated agony of the Tunisian player to create the deception. Equally, it should be a lesson for Walker that, in the modern international game, it is taking a risk to jut out a trailing arm when an opponent is in close proximity.
Harry Kane double ensures England defeat Tunisia in World Cup opener
Walker has a habit of disrupting players this way and on this occasion it backfired. Ferjani Sassi took the penalty, beating Jordan Pickford to the goalkeeper’s right. And, suddenly, England were level again in a game they had been dominating.
They should have won a penalty of their own when Kane was pulled to the floor in the same incident that led to Stones firing wide and, after the interval, England continued to press forward without, perhaps, the same kind of penetrative edge.
Sterling, with only two goals now in 38 England appearances, was taken off in that period and Marcus Rashford came on. England kept going. Even when the ball was not running for them, they kept going. And then, finally, the corner came in. And Kane was there.
Harry Kane double ensures England defeat Tunisia in World Cup opener
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