Two-goal captain Harry Kane pounced during second-half injury-time to hand England a 2-1 victory against Tunisia when their Group G-commitments at World Cup 2018 began on Monday.
The Three Lions burst into life from the off at Volgograd Arena and deservedly went ahead on 11 minutes when Tottenham striker Kane followed up Manchester City centre-back John Stones’ superbly saved header.
Gareth Southgate’s men appeared to be coasting towards victory only for a controversial penalty conceded by fellow City defender Kyle Walker for a block on Al Ettifaq attacker Fakhreddine Ben Youssef to force the leveller. Al Nassr midfielder Ferjani Sassi did the rest from 12 yards on 35 minutes.
A valuable win appeared to be evading England, before Kane headed in Leicester City defender Harry Maguire’s flick from another corner at the death.
ENGLAND ARE AN EXCITING WORK IN PROGRESS, TUNISIA HANG TOUGH WITHOUT MSAKNI
Hope rather than expectation defines this World Cup for England.
The usual cloying demands of the media and public are absent, replaced by a dose of reality that Gareth Southgate’s troops remain a work in progress.
From having six shots on target in the first half, their most at a World Cup since 1966, only two more followed after the break. Vitally, the second was Kane’s pressure-relieving clincher.
Predecessor Roy Hodgson’s decision to stick his greatest threat on corner duty during the doomed Euro 2016-campaign now appears even more ridiculous than it did at the time.
In a moment of quiet contemplation back at England’s base, Southgate may worry about a theme that appeared in both warm-up victories against Nigeria and Costa Rica.
Strong starts must be turned into resounding victories, beginning with Sunday’s next meeting with Panama.
As for Tunisia, it was no surprise they weren’t supine. A nine-game unbeaten streak was only ended at the death by Spain in their final friendly.
Head coach Nabil Maaloul will hold two regrets – how his physically superior team could look so skittish at corners and what damage injured forward Youssed Msakni could have caused.
A greater attacking edge could have forced both a historic result and revenge for 1998’s opening loss to the same opposition.
The North Africans are now in the invidious position of needing to force a result against Belgium on Saturday.
LINGARD LACKS KILLER TOUCH
This was a curate’s egg of a display from Jesse Lingard.
The Manchester United youth product symbolised the endeavor inherent to Southgate’s 3-1-4-2 formation.
A series of superb runs and instinctive darts brought him repeatedly into the danger zone, but what stopped this being an exhibition of attacking-midfield play was the glaring – and almost-costly – lack of end product.
From a quartet of presentable first-half chances, the most-difficult – and final – one rolled onto the edge of the post after he bravely latched onto Tottenham right wing-back Kieran Trippier’s delightful long ball.
This followed a strong stop from Nice goalkeeper Mouez Hassen – soon substituted because of injury – from point-blank range in the second minute, a ballooned volley when picked out by club-mate Ashley Young and a blocked half-volley.
This profligacy was amplified by Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling not stepping into the void – he had zero shots before being taken off on 68 minutes.
Even with 10 goals in his last nine internationals, Kane cannot always be counted on to bail them out.
Lingard has a long relationship with Southgate stretching back to the Under-21s. His case for starting in Russia was also forged on the back of a career-best return of 13 goals in 48 run-outs for the Red Devils in 2017/18.
Yet the 25-year-old did not find the back of the net during his last 15 club matches of the season.
A prompt return to goalscoring form is required to quell the case for Chelsea-owned centre midfielder Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who impressed off the substitutes’ bench along with United forward Marcus Rashford.
VAR CRIES OUT FOR CONSISTENCY
The Video Assistant Referee system has largely been a force for good in Russia.
Warnings from Luddites that the game’s very soul would be lost by its introduction have proved predictably shortsighted. On Monday alone, Sweden’s penalty justified its inclusion.
Unsurprisingly though, teething problems do exist. The main one being a lack of consistency with its use in the penalty area.
VAR is supposed to be used to correct ‘clear and obvious errors’. How the repeated rugby tackles in the penalty box by Sassi and centre-back Yassine Meriah on Kane didn’t merit second view is dumbfounding.
This is without wading into the subjective decision about whether Walker’s slight infringement did not warrant being cancelled out upon review.
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