Wednesday 18 July 2018

Harry's gain for England

Tunisia 1 England 2

Harry Kane heads a late winner for England as they finally broke down Tunisia’s resistance. Photo: PA
Harry Kane heads a late winner for England as they finally broke down Tunisia’s resistance. Photo: PA

Jack Pitt-Brooke

Harry Kane beat Tunisia, but he did more than that. He beat the hand of history that was just minutes away from reasserting its cold grip over this England team, just as their World Cup was beginning.

With one normal-time minute left of their opener, England were heading for one of their most familiar stories of all: the disappointing 1-1 draw in which a strong start gave way to nerves, an equaliser, a burdened, anxious second half and ultimately an underwhelming point. Against Sweden in 2002, USA in 2010 and France in Euro 2012, we have seen this one before.

And that sorry point - two less than Belgium have - is exactly what England deserved when Kieran Trippier curled in one last corner kick in the last minute of normal time here. But Harry Maguire won the first header and there was Kane, lurking at the far post, swiveling his body to head the ball into the only empty corner of the net. It was his second close-range goal of the game, after tapping England ahead after 11 minutes.

Celebrated

England had the win, the three points to keep them close to Belgium, and as the players celebrated with the fans at the end, they shared the same mix of feelings. Glee, relief, and sense that this time might be slightly different.

Because this whole game was a test of this untested team, with their new manager and new captain. Kane and Southgate have been hammering the message recently that this is to be a fresh start, but few would have expected Kane to deliver quite like this. Two goals, one at the start of the game and one at the end, turning what would could have been a frustrating night into an exhilarating one. Even for a player who specialises in implausible comic-book decisiveness and maximum narrative pay-off, this was something else. He said on Sunday night he wanted to show the world what he can do, and that is exactly what he did.

Kyle Walker (left) concedes a penalty after colliding with Tunisia's Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Photo: PA
Kyle Walker (left) concedes a penalty after colliding with Tunisia's Fakhreddine Ben Youssef. Photo: PA

And it was Kane, long before then, who made the most of England's promising start. The opening minutes were almost everything Gareth Southgate would have wanted. Some wondered whether his promises of bold attacking football, of new patterns of play, would amount to anything here in the distorting pressure of a World Cup. But they did.

The football was exactly as England promised, especially with those incisive thrusts of Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard beyond the front-line, behind the Tunisian defence, blowing open the game from the start. In the first five minutes England could have scored three times. Had they done, the win might have been easier than it was.

But no-one knew that back then, and any immediate worries that all that pressure and hard work would count for nothing only lasted another five minutes. That hunger to fight for the ball finally paid off, when Kane forced a corner. John Stones' header was saved but there was Kane to tuck away a simple finish. It instantly felt like the start of something: England's first of the World Cup, Kane's first in a tournament, the beginning of the serious bit of the Southgate era.

There was a brief spell, when England piled forward in pursuit of a second, when the players did indeed look like the unburdened fresh-starters Southgate wants them to be. And if Lingard had finished Ashley Young's free-kick then maybe they might have been, in a far more comfortable win than this.

Ferjani Sassi equalises for Tunisia from the penalty spot. Photo: PA
Ferjani Sassi equalises for Tunisia from the penalty spot. Photo: PA

But there is a familiar old pattern to these games, one that is so internal to us that there is almost nothing that can be said to exorcise it or deny its compelling power: England start openers well, and then they wilt. The early goal in 2010 led to a draw with the United States, just like against Sweden in 2002, or France at Euro 2012. England did nothing after scoring against Paraguay in 2006, scraping the win. Their brief fight-back against Italy four years ago amounted to nothing.

Sure enough, with the lead in their hands, and everything set up as England would want, the nerves emerged.

Tunisia broke away down the right, and they had an equaliser that would have felt barely believable when England were slicing through them at the start.

With Fakhreddine Ben Youssef lurking behind him in the box, Walker misjudged, swinging out a left arm and bringing him down. Ferjani Sassi put the penalty into the bottom corner.

England's Jesse Lingard knocks the ball past the Tunisian goalkeeper but is denied by the post. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
England's Jesse Lingard knocks the ball past the Tunisian goalkeeper but is denied by the post. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

So there it was, the old habits were back and the lead was gone. And England had to do something else they have never been good at: getting up after getting hit, and starting to play their football again.

England's job was to start the second half the same way they started the first. And they couldn't, not even close. There was none of the same zip in possession, none of the same runs in behind. None of the risks, bravery, imagination or any of the Southgate qualities they had showcased at the start.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek came in 10 minutes from the end and provided some energy. Marcus Rashford had already come on by then, for Raheem Sterling who had another one of those games where he always looked on the brink of pulling off something miraculous, only for it to go wrong.

England were out of ideas and out of options when they won that crucial 89th-minute corner thanks to Loftus-Cheek's pressure. Kane then did what he does, pouncing on his second tap-in and saving them from themselves. (© Independent News Service)

Raheem Sterling attempts an overhead kick from close range. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich
Raheem Sterling attempts an overhead kick from close range. Photo: REUTERS/Gleb Garanich

Irish Independent

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