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Jude Bellingham is England’s headline act – but he cannot win Euro 2024 on his own

Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden celebrate

Gareth Southgate was in the England squad himself when the nation prayed for David Beckham’s broken metatarsal to heal, so he is aware of the dangers of putting the weight of expectation on a single player. One man cannot win a tournament, although with Jude Bellingham around there is certainly a better chance.

Bellingham returns to the England camp this weekend on the eve of flying out to the European Championship, back to Germany where he cut his teeth at Borussia Dortmund before his seamless switch to Galactico status at Real Madrid.

Absence made the heart grow fonder when Bellingham was recovering physically and psychologically from winning the Champions League last weekend. With Southgate’s team losing their final Euros warm-up game to Iceland, Bellingham’s return is a guarantee among the uncertainties.

“He is, of course, a player with fabulous mentality and will have a big impact on the whole group but the biggest thing over the last couple of games is that we’ve never had the collective together on the pitch at the same time,” said Southgate. “Maybe against Iceland it was a bit closer but there are still players we are finding out about and it really sharpens the focus of what we need to do.”

Southgate started with his first-choice back four against Iceland and John Stones will be monitored over the next few days after leaving Wembley with strapping on his right ankle.

Cole Palmer’s form is propting the question, does he now deserve a starting place? While Declan Rice’s central-midfield partner looks like a race yet to be won; Trent Alexander-Arnold given No 8 in the squad numbers, while Kobbie Mainoo started against Iceland.

Bellingham will be wearing No 10 and, after his week off, preparations will start at England’s base at Golfresort Weimarer Land in Blankenhain ahead of the 20-year-old starting against Serbia in Gelsenkirchen at the weekend.

Bellingham is the headliner of Adidas’ pre-Euros campaign which aptly aims to inspire young athletes “to overcome pressure and fuel their love for the beautiful game”, and is narrated by a certain David Beckham.

“I’ve learnt pressure is more of a responsibility, it can be hard to play under pressure,” said Bellingham, promoting the campaign. “The advice I live by is when the feeling of pressure arrives, you have to remember why you’re playing. For me, going into this summer’s tournament, I’ll remember that I play for the love of the game and bring the feeling of pressure into the fold to push me to reach the highest level I can.”

Southgate is wary of adding to the pressure on Bellingham. Getting through Group C and towards the final in Berlin will need Harry Kane’s goals, Marc Guehi to step in for Harry Maguire, Rice to control midfield areas and Phil Foden to bring his best Premier League form to the international stage. Bellingham’s return though, at the very least, will give the squad a lift after the Iceland defeat.

“I’m sure he will, but it is not his responsibility to do that,” said Southgate. “It is for all of us to get the focus right, to make sure, individually, our mentality is right and as a coaching team we will make sure we are working on the areas that need to be better than they were against Iceland.

“We are not putting everything on Jude, we’ve got a lot of good players and it is a collective thing to go and try to win this tournament. If we are relying on one person, that isn’t going to be a team that wins. He is, of course, a player with fabulous mentality and will have a big impact on the whole group.”

Immediate concerns for Southgate will be to tighten his defence after being exposed by Iceland. Guehi has looked rusty in the two warm-up games but he is still finding his rhythm after three months out with a knee injury. He took a blow to the head while blocking a shot on Friday evening but will train as normal after concussion protocols were followed and he was allowed to continue.

Marc Guehi receives treatment after taking a blow to the head
Marc Guehi has passed his concussion protocols after a blow to the head - Shutterstock/Tolga Akmen

“Marc is an accomplished defender. He is positionally always good, composed with the ball,” said Southgate. “He has lost a centre-back partner halfway through the game. By the end we needed to look after (Kieran) Trippier and (Kyle) Walker. That area of the team was very inexperienced and not used to playing with each other.”

Anthony Gordon and Palmer were England’s most creative players. Both are willing to take on their full-back and have a fearlessness. Palmer had two clear opportunities against Iceland and also created Kane’s best chance. Does he have a chance to play? “No question,” said Southgate.

“He’s had a fabulous season and got himself into a couple of fabulous positions. The fact is he was in there on both occasions and looked dangerous. It was also good to get Bukayo (Saka) on the pitch. He has missed a lot of the training and we needed to see him out there as well.”

Bukayo Saka is tackled by Kolbeinn Finnsson
Bukayo Saka came on as a second-half substitute against Iceland - Getty Images/Catherine Ivill

Saka and Bellingham’s absence means there is work to be done in Blankenhain this week in attack. Southgate himself admits they must focus on improving when out of possession, not to mention trying to build bonds quickly within a squad that is dramatically changed from the World Cup.

“That is what we’ve got. International football is about prioritising, making the most of the time we have,” said Southgate. “We were actually excellent without the ball in our last three matches but we were a long way off that against Iceland. It’s a good reminder for us as a team, if you are off it as a collective without the ball then you can feel uncomfortable in the game and have problems in the game.

“There are uncertainties physically. There is no question about that. That’s why we had to make the decision with Maguire and with Hendo (Jordan Henderson) as well. But that’s the hand we have got. We have to play that in the most intelligent way. The performance gives me as the manager a real clear focus as to what we have to push next week.”

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