This game had the potential to mark the beginning of a new era for the English national team. After years of constant disappointment, culminating in an embarrassing elimination from Euro 2016 at the hands of Iceland, this latest iteration of the Three Lions was coming in to the World Cup with little hype and plenty of talent. Nine of the players in their starting line-up to face Tunisia were making their World Cup debuts, and there was a feeling that this side, spearheaded by the remarkable Harry Kane, could usher in an exciting new time for English football. Then, on the pitch, Gareth Southgate’s youngsters dominated, but conceded a fortunate goal to their opponents and were only saved from the ignominy of a first-up draw by Kane’s heroic 91st minute winner. Have they changed? It’s not yet clear.
England began the game in ominous form, blowing Tunisia away in the early stages with their electrifying attacking play as the chances came thick and fast. Jordan Henderson’s long ball in behind found Dele Alli, whose dangerous cut back nearly found Raheem Sterling in a great position. Tunisia intercepted, but Alli picked the pocket of left-back Ali Maâloul in the penalty area and Jesse Lingard’s shot was only just blocked by Mouez Hassen. Hassen was called into action at the next corner, leaping desperately to deny Harry Maguire’s header, and shortly afterwards he was caught out when Lingard broke through the defence and found Sterling in front of an open goal. Somehow, the talented youngster missed. Meanwhile, Hassen lay on the ground, having injured his shoulder trying in vain to stop Lingard. Less than five minutes had elapsed.
Unsurprisingly, the goal soon followed, and it came from another poor piece of marking at a corner. Ashley Young swung it in, and this time it was John Stones who rose above the rest and headed towards the top corner, forcing Hassen into another incredible save. Unfortunately for him, the ball landed right onto the boot of Kane, who had absolutely no trouble finishing a straightforward chance from inside the six-yard box. For those looking for a new era, it was a very promising start. As England’s new captain wheeled away in celebration, it was hard to escape the feeling that Kane’s easy finish was the first of many goals to come.Embed from Getty Images
English coach Gareth Southgate celebrates following his side’s dramatic victory. Southgate seemed fairly concerned during the second half, and he let his relief show when Kane gave England a late lead.
The next few minutes did little to contradict that theory. Hassen’s injury led to his removal shortly after Kane’s opener, and Farouk Ben Mustapha, the third-choice goalkeeper in the squad (Hassen was already playing over the unavailable Aymen Mathlouthi) was called into action. He was needed shortly afterwards to save Henderson’s volley, and as England continued to create chances Lingard missed a volley from close range and Maguire forced Ben Mustapha into another save after a strong header. England were creating all the chances, and were repelling anything Tunisia threw at them.
Then, disaster struck. Being England, a side with a chequered relationship with penalties, of course the goal came from a spot kick. Kyle Walker was the culprit, unnecessarily flinging out an arm as he defended Dylan Bronn’s cross and catching Fakhreddine Ben Youssef flush in the face. When Ben Youssef went down like a ton of bricks, Wilmar Roldán was quick to point to the spot. Taking the kick, Ferjani Sassi made no mistake, with Jordan Pickford getting a fingertip to the ball but not doing enough to prevent it from finding the back of the net.
England had more chances as they looked to retake the lead. A Kieran Trippier free-kick was headed down by Maguire, and when Alli beat Ben Mustapha to the follow-up effort it created a nervous moment for Syam Ben Youssef. The centre-back just cleared Alli’s header off the line, and both Sterling and Stones failed to connect properly as they sought to take advantage of Tunisia’s defensive disarray. Meanwhile, Kane was tackled by Sassi in the box, but Roldán missed the incident completely. Lingard had two more chances as the half drew to a close, with Bronn deflecting his excellent volley over the bar and a dangerous run allowing him to tap the ball over Ben Mustapha only for it to roll harmlessly into the post. On another day, England could have gone into half time ahead by three or four goals. Instead, they were tied.Embed from Getty Images
Harry Kane (back) heads home England’s late winner. Kane scored two crucial goals, with his second breaking a deadlock that had existed for over half the game.
The second half started fairly slowly, with England largely dictating terms but not finding any real chances against the Tunisian defence. It didn’t matter too much, as the inaction only stretched for the first 10 minutes of the half while the English settled back in. Then it stretched on. The hour mark passed. Then 65 minutes. Suddenly, 75 minutes had elapsed and England hadn’t seriously threatened the Tunisian goal for around half an hour. Maguire and Walker were seemingly no longer playing as centre-backs, instead parking themselves in Tunisia’s half. Marcus Rashford was introduced in a desperate attempt to make something – anything – happen. All that they managed to create was a couple of free-kicks in potentially dangerous spots, both of which missed the target.
England were still dominating in the final few minutes, but Tunisia held firm. Maâloul frustrated Trippier by standing in front of the ball as the wing-back looked to move the ball on quickly. Wahbi Khazri left the game with five minutes to go, stopping just short of taking a lap of honour as he walked off the field while exchanging pleasantries from Roldán and detouring to accept the congratulations of his teammates. Ruben Loftus-Cheek came off the bench and made some things happen, but it looked like the match would end in despair despite all of England’s hard work. It felt like such a shame.
Then, just as it seemed like England would need to settle for a draw, the winner came. It was Kane, of course. Trippier’s ball into the box found Maguire and Syam Ben Youssef, and Maguire rose above the determined centre-back to head it towards the back post. Then, after 45 minutes of almost flawless defending, the Eagles of Carthage left England’s captain all alone, and in a perfect position just inside the six-yard box. He was never going to miss, and England could breathe a massive sigh of relief as they finally saw off a determined Tunisian challenge. It was a close run thing, but the new-look Three Lions came out with the win, and will only grow in confidence from here. Is it the start of a new era? We shall see.
Volgograd – Volgograd Arena
Tunisia 1 (Sassi 35 pen)
England 2 (Kane 11, 90+1)
Referee: Wilmar Roldán (Col)
Tunisia (4-3-3): Hassen (Ben Mustapha 15) – Bronn, S Ben Youssef, Meriah, Maâloul; Sassi, Skhiri, Badri; F Ben Youssef, Khazri (Khalifa 85), Sliti (Ben Amor 73).
England (3-5-2): Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire; Trippier, Alli (Loftus-Cheek 80), Henderson, Lingard (Dier 90+3), Young; Sterling (Rashford 68), Kane.
Jesse Lingard has an early shot at the Tunisian goal. Lingard was lively from the start, and was very unlucky not to find the back of the net.
1. Jesse Lingard (England)
Lingard was full of energy, bursting through the Tunisian defensive line on a number of occasions and creating plenty of chances. He was unlucky not to find the back of the net during a dynamic first half performance, and his movement in transition created plenty of space for his teammates to work into.
2. Harry Kane (England)
Kane managed two poachers’ goals, and showed why he is such a dangerous goal-scorer in the process. He worked tirelessly all day, stepped up exactly when his team needed a hero, and positioned himself perfectly to get himself a brace on World Cup debut. If there was any doubt about his credentials before, he has erased it with a brilliant performance.
3. Syam Ben Youssef (Tunisia)
Ben Youssef had plenty of work to do against England’s dynamic attack, but he stayed composed and did very well to stave off some dangerous pieces of forward play. He was the only member of Tunisia’s back four who performed well in the first period, and he looked even more solid in the second half when his teammates started to pick up their efforts.
4. Kieran Trippier (England)
Trippier’s set piece delivery was brilliant, as was his energy and attacking presence down the right flank. He played a key hand in England’s injury time winner, and ensured they kept pushing right up to the final whistle with his desperation to get the ball moving quickly.
5. Jordan Henderson (England)
Henderson created plenty of chances with his dangerous diagonal balls in behind the Tunisian defence. As ever, he positioned himself well in holding midfield and allowed the English to thrive with his solidity. He occasionally threatened in attack, and could be a very handy part of the English side down the track.