Kane relief: Captain’s heroics lead England to World Cup win
It was torturous. It was exasperating. As the minutes ticked by it was increasingly desperate, as has become customary at major tournaments.
But, for the first time since 2006, England made a winning start to a World Cup as Harry Kanes goals – the decider coming in stoppage time – eventually saw off Tunisia 2-1 in Volgograd on Monday night. When the final whistle sounded, it was pure relief.
Gareth Southgate will sleep a little easier now – victory over a weak Panama side on Sunday will all but guarantee progress from Group G – and there was much for him to appreciate here.
England took the lead after just 10 minutes and played some of the most incisive attacking football of the competition so far in the opening half hour.
Yet familiar frailties haunted them: a lapse in discipline that allowed Tunisia an equalising penalty before half-time and, in the second period, an inability to penetrate stubborn opposition. Until Kanes late heroics, that is.
That it was Kane who delivered England from another dismal start should come as no surprise.
The captain has scored on his last five international appearances, has 15 goals in 25 games for his country and underlined that he is a world-class centre-forward with two poachers finishes: the first a tap in after Mouez Hassen had clawed away a John Stones header; the second nodded in following Harry Maguires knock down.
The Tottenham man has scored the decisive goal in four of Englands last six competitive outings. He is no stranger to saving Southgates skin.
Southgate's team looked to be heading for a draw (Source: Getty)
When the elation subsides this week, however, the England manager may muse on the shortage of reliable finishers elsewhere in the ranks.
It was all too evident in that first 30 minutes against Tunisia, who should have been focusing on damage limitation but for some unfortunate and in many cases wasteful shooting. It poses an uncomfortable question: if Kane doesnt score, will anyone else?
Jesse Lingard was particularly culpable. Perhaps jinxed by his decision to trademark his goal celebration in the lead-up to the World Cup, the Manchester United midfielder looked anxious in front of goal.
He failed to connect cleanly with the net largely unguarded in the second minute and fluffed a back-post volley later in the first half. He was unlucky when another volley ricocheted over and also when his prodded effort hit the post.
Raheem Sterling, who has two goals in 39 appearances, did not muster a shot of note. Dele Alli made a bright start but appeared to wilt with an injury.
When he was introduced from the bench Marcus Rashford buzzed with intent yet he too squandered a shooting chance, inexplicably leaving a cut-back from Ruben Loftus-Cheek when England were chasing a winner and a shot begged to be hit. Three minutes from time, it looked like being the last chance.
Jesse Lingard failed to convert several opportunities for England (Source: Getty)
To the credit of England and Southgate, they did not abandon the approach that they have clearly worked hard on for months leading up to this tournament and start tossing aimless balls into the box even when it seemed as though Tunisia, playing a first World Cup match for 12 years, would hold on for a draw.
Pep Guardiola and Manchester City have made it acceptable to eschew a Plan B and it is an admirable ethos, just as long as it works.
In the end – just as for Englands first goal – it was a set-piece that proved their most potent weapon.
While free-kicks were unsuccessfully entrusted to wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young, the pair had more luck with corners. Another, just before half-time saw John Stones miskick with the goal gaping.
England will point to some questionable refereeing calls: Tunisias penalty, for Kyle Walkers flailing arm hitting Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, was soft, while Kane complained with some justification of being dragged to the ground twice at set-pieces. The margins are fine at World Cups, as they know only too well.
Four years ago, England showed encouraging signs in their opening group game against Italy but ultimately lost 2-1 and were effectively on their way home five days later. For much of the second half against Tunisia, this game had the feeling of another possible false dawn.
Whether by playing well or badly, it seems England always put their supporters through the ringer. Southgates team in Russia may be a largely new bunch, but old traits die hard.