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The youngest and most dynamic England side in recent memory discovered that inexperience cuts both ways in its first match at the 2018 World Cup, but managed to secure an important win anyway.
The Three Lions got off to a flying start when Harry Kane put his side up against Tunisia early in Monday’s Group G match in Volgograd:
Their naiveté showed before the first half was over, though, as Ferjani Sassi equalized from the penalty spot following Kyle Walker’s silly foul on Fakhreddine Ben Youssef.
And despite out-shooting the Tunisians by a 18-6 margin, only a stoppage-time goal by Kane gave England all three points:
Slow starts nothing new for England
Coming into the game, England had won just one of its four World Cup openers since beating Tunisia 20 years ago in France. In two of those three tournaments, the Three Lions advanced nonetheless. Besides, they would have been in good company in Russia, as Argentina, Brazil and Germany also dropped points in their 2018 debuts.
So while England was fully expected to beat the Eagles of Carthage, it also understood that a victory against Panama, perhaps the weakest of its three group stage foes, would have almost certainly secured a place in the knockout round on Sunday in Nizhny Novgorod.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. While Belgium posted a 3-0 win over the Canaleros earlier on Monday, that match wasn’t nearly as lopsided as the result would suggest. Panama plays hard. It would have been more than capable of making England regret any slip-up against the Tunisians.
The last thing that England wanted was to go into its final group match against Belgium needing a result. That would have been a nightmare scenario for Gareth Southgate’s side. Thanks to Kane’s late heroics the pressure is basically off. Now, a draw against Panama will probably be enough for England to advance.
Lions never looked comfortable
Maybe it was first game jitters. Maybe the swarm of mosquitoes that infested the Volgograd Arena in the leadup to the Monday’s game put England off. Whatever the reason, Southgate’s fresh-faced team – of the 32 participants in Russia, only Nigeria has a younger squad – didn’t look sharp despite enjoying 60 percent of the possession. Had England been able to finish just one of the many golden scoring opportunities that came before and after Kane’s strike, this game would have been over a lot earlier.
When England went three-and-out in Brazil four years ago, it resulted in the departure of a number of stalwarts including Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, the last members of England’s so-called golden generation that never came close to winning anything during the first 15 years of the 21st century.
Led by the likes of Kane, his Tottenham Hotspur teammate Dele Alli and Manchester City speed demon Raheem Sterling, this side feels different. It’s actually likeable, and seemingly free of the egos and cliques that torpedoed previous England teams. This was these players’ first real test. It wasn’t pretty, but they passed it in the end. We’ll find out soon enough if the resulting boost in confidence will manifest itself on the field as the competition wears on, or if England’s also-ran status at major tournaments will continue even though the personnel has changed.
Tunisia deserves some props
England wasted no time going for the Tunisian goal, breaking forward three times in the first three minutes and forcing Mouez Hassen into a smart kick save on Jesse Lingard before some fans had reached their seats.
Hassen made another acrobatic stop in the 11th minute, stopping a powerful header by John Stones, but the rebound was easily finished by Kane. Things went from bad to worse for Tunisia when Hassen left the field in tears moments later, having been replaced because of an apparent shoulder injury.
But for the next 74 minutes, Tunisia defended like banshees. England had no answers. So when Kane’s goal finally came it seemed almost cruel — not least because he was criminally unmarked at the back post. It was a fair result in the end, but Tunisia should be proud of its performance.
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