Marcus Rashford hails England's improved team spirit ahead of Panama clash

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Marcus Rashford says the England squad are relishing this opportunity to show people how far they have come, saying Gareth Southgate’s World Cup group “really is a team” compared to Euro 2016.

Harry Kane‘s late heroics in Volgograd saw the Three Lions start the World Cup with a victory for the first time since 2006.

The spirit, patience and camaraderie displayed in the 2-1 defeat of Tunisia was a far cry from their last match at a major tournament, when toothless England suffered one of their most humiliating defeats ever.

Rashford came on for the dying embers of that galling Euro 2016 exit to Iceland, but the forward believes the group has taken huge strides since then and have kinship perhaps lacking back then.

“I think the mood around the camp is a lot calmer from what I can remember of that last tournament,” he said, comparing this squad to his first major tournament experience with England.

“But I think that’s as expected. We were all fairly new to each other in that tournament and now we’ve managed to build relationships and the team really is a team now. 

“I think that only puts us in good stead for this tournament and future tournaments.”

It certainly paid dividends against Tunisia as England displayed patience and maturity that belied their inexperience – not that Rashford sees tournament rawness as a problem.

“You can say that but, like I said before, we already know that within ourselves,” Rashford said.

“The games that everybody can watch, all it is, is an opportunity for us to showcase that and show everyone how far we’ve really come.

“Even if we draw that game, we stay calm and the next game is an opportunity to again showcase what we’ve been working on and you know get three points.

“I think that mentality has to stay because you’re not going to win every single game and when you do lose or when you do draw, you have to learn from it.

“As a team we are capable of doing that and it doesn’t really matter about the age of us or how experienced we are. I think if we have that togetherness we can all drag each other through.”

Rashford was the first player Southgate turned to help change the game with Tunisia digging deep at the Volgograd Arena.

The Manchester United forward replaced Raheem Sterling in the 68th minute of a match he may well have started had it not been for injury.

After scoring a spectacular goal in a man-of-the-match display against Costa Rica in England’s send-off friendly, Rashford was forced to miss England’s first two days of training in Russia with a knee complaint.

“It was more just annoying because it’s something that I’ve had before, and I’ve had to sort of play with before,” the 20-year-old said.

“So, it was just a bit annoying the timing of it, for it to come just before we travelled to the tournament.

“But you have to stay calm in them situations and I’ve had it before, so it wasn’t sort of a shock to me, so I knew what I had to do to recover fast enough for the game.

“That will continue to happen now throughout the tournament, I’ll have to keep doing that sort of recovery and stuff in order to stay in shape for the games.”

Rashford now hopes to prove himself worthy of starting England’s penultimate Group G match against minnows and World Cup debutants Panama on Sunday.

“They’re a team that can play good football,” he said. “We have to do what we can to nullify that.

“They like to play out from the back and they’ve got some quality in the team as well, so we have to show respect to them and we have to go there and ultimately get the three points.”

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Watch: Belgium boss Roberto Martinez claims Red Devils need to improve

David Cooper 20/06/2018
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Belgium boss Roberto Martinez is demanding improvement from his side.

Belgium manager Roberto Martinez believes his side are well on the right track after opening their World Cup campaign with a 3-0 success over Panama, but he believes there is plenty of more work to do.

A goal from Dries Mertens and a brace from Romelu Lukaku wrapped up that victory ahead of two more Group G clashes to come against Tunisia and England.

Watch Martinez speak to the media in the video below:

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Lionel Messi gets instant shot at redemption plus other Argentina v Croatia talking points

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Argentina and Lionel Messi have it all to do on Thursday when they seek to dispel the predictions of doom which surround them at World Cup 2018.

The two-time winners slipped to a 1-1 draw against tournament-debutants Iceland on Saturday when they kicked off their Group D-campaign in predictably unedifying fashion. This match was also one to forget for Barcelona icon Messi, who missed a second-half penalty and had to shoulder, as usual, all attacking responsibility.

Next up is Croatia at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium. Zlatko Dalic’s men earned a 2-0 triumph against disappointing Nigeria last weekend and will be looking to get a famous win which would put them in the knockouts for the first time since 1998’s third-placed finish, while sending their opponents even further into a tailspin.

Here are the talking points:

MESSI’S SHOT AT REDEMPTION

Messi’s impending 31st birthday acts as reminder that the window to emulate fellow Argentina icon Diego Maradona’s lionised achievements on the international stage is rapidly narrowing.

Sunday’s personal celebrations hold significant risk of being tainted. If results do not go La Albiceleste’s way before then, and they were abject for much of the Iceland stalemate, hopes of avoiding a group-stage exit for the first time since 2002 could be blown out soon after the candles on their star player’s cake.

Messi has won it all at Barcelona. A painful total of four near misses define experiences with Argentina at the World Cup and Copa Libertadores.

His latest shot at filling the only void in, arguably, the sport’s finest career did not get off to a propitious start.

Goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson comfortably repelled his meek 64th-minute spot-kick with the scores level. This was the headline act, but the underlying issues were far graver.

Beyond Manchester City striker Sergio Aguero’s fine opener, his fellow attackers absolved all leadership to him. A worrying, and expected, degeneration from 2014’s “Los Cuatro Fantasticos” (The Fantastic Four) continued.

Iceland dropped off Messi, relying on a lack of movement and imagination in front of him to stunt his otherworldly skills. The likes of woeful Paris Saint-Germain winger Angel Di Maria showed no desire to show for the rapier one-twos that he uses to wreak havoc at club level.

Messi had to force the issue against Iceland, rather than playing on the formidable instincts which fuel the Camp Nou-success. His 11 attempts on goal was more than double 2017/18’s La Liga average per match of 5.5.

This storyline is not a new one. Beyond his late salvage act against Iran four years ago at the same juncture, rare criticism came Messi’s way en route to extra-time defeat in the final against Germany.

Maradona’s eight club trophies is a quarter of his celebrated successor’s tally. Yet that ability to singlehandedly carry an expectant nation to success in 1986 stands him apart.

A match of significant consequence awaits.

CROATIA’S CHANCE TO FOLLOW IN GIANT FOOTSTEPS

Knockout football at the World Cup was a dream which eluded an entire generation of Croatia stars.

Darijo Srna, the Kovac brothers, Niko Kranjcar, Ivica Olic, Eduardo da Silva and Danijel Pranjic. All esteemed players who made their Vatreni debuts after the cherished events of 20 years ago, participated in some – if not all – of the three group-stage exits which followed and then exited the scene.

It is now up to the current crop to avoid this unsatisfying fate.

This eventuality would be utterly incongruous to the talents of Real Madrid metronome Luka Modric, Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic and Juventus warrior Mario Mandzukic. All are aged 30 or over, meaning this could be a last shot at avoidance.

Saturday’s victory against Nigeria provided an acceptable result, if not performance.

From 11 attempts on goal throughout the 90 minutes, only the duo that went in were on target. A pass success of 79 per cent was also lower than expected.

This dysfunctional Argentina should be there for the taking. It is now up to the current bunch to show they can follow in the sizeable footsteps of Davor Suker, Zvonimir Boban, Robert Prosinecki and Co.

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ARGENTINA’S PRESSURE POINT

Argentina’s recent history has seen several obituaries written – and then defied.

Serene progression to World Cup 2014 is sandwiched between torturous paths. However, at each pinch point, revitalising results were somehow summoned.

Disaster seemed imminent under Maradona in the 2010 process, before the last of four automatic berths was earned via victories in the final two fixtures against Peru and Uruguay.

Messi decided a pained path to 2018. Just seven points out a possible 24 were gained in his absence, compared to 21 points from the 10 games he started.

If July 2016’s emotionally charged international retirement in the wake of defeat to Chile in the Copa Libertadores showdown had been enacted, it’s fair to say Argentina would not be in Russia.

But Messi was present amid the altitude of Ecuador to fire in a staggering hat-trick during the last of 18 demanding fixtures.

Argentina have been in worse positions before. Defeat Croatia and they are sure to belittle adversity once again.

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