MOSCOW. – The clock had ticked past the 90-minute mark when the corner came in, Harry Kane was there, he had told us he wanted to emulate Cristiano Ronaldo with a hat-trick of goals. He managed only two last night, as England beat Tunisia 2-1, but this, undoubtedly, was the biggest moment yet of his international career and suddenly the Three Lions’ opening game of the World Cup had the happy ending it deserved.
Until that point, it had been threatening to be another case of the same old story and a familiar sense of deja vu.
England, after all, had managed only five wins in their opening fixtures of either the World Cup or the European Championship since 1950.
Kane had already scored from one corner but Tunisia’s equaliser came from a penalty that could be described, at best, as generous – or, from England’s perspective, utterly needless – and for a long time it seemed as though Gareth Southgate’s team did not have the wit or creativity thereafter to turn their superiority into the hard currency of goals.
But when has it ever been straightforward with this team?
Kane was lurking, unmarked, to head in Harry Maguire’s flick-on and, ultimately, nobody could say the result was unjust.
What a difference that goal could make as well when a draw threatened serious ramifications for the rest of Group G. Kane’s late, dramatic winner now means England can qualify for the knockout stages by beating Panama in Nizhy Novgorod on Sunday.
Suddenly the final game against Belgium no longer carries the same threat and England will leave Volgograd reflecting on a hugely satisfying evening, full of drama and incident.
“Even though the clock was running down, we stayed patient. We waited for opportunities. We made so many clearcut chances in the first half,’’ said England coach Gareth Southgate.
‘‘We were strong on set plays in the second half. Even if we had drawn the game I would have been proud of us. We’ll do well to make as many in a game in this tournament.
‘‘Good teams score late goals. If you pass like that the opposition tire. It’s a night where it’s difficult to highlight individuals because it was a collective. The squad has been brilliant. The subs came on and it was great to have the impact they did.
‘‘We felt that Raheem and Dele had caused huge problems for the opposition but maybe it was a good moment to put on a different threat. We’ve given ourselves a great platform to build from.
‘‘There’s so much to be pleased about. But there’s a lot to work on. Panama will be a tough test in a different way. We’ve got to keep performing.
‘‘Harry’s a top, top striker. I’m delighted for him because if he doesn’t score tonight it’d be questions about him not scoring in tournaments.”
Meanwhile, a stunning volley from Dries Mertens and a Romelu Lukaku double broke the resistance of a brave Panama side on their World Cup debut as Belgium cruised to a 3-0 win in their opening Group G game yesterday.
Mertens hammered home a superb volley two minutes into the second half, sending the ball arcing over Jaime Penedo after Panama struggled to clear a cross. Lukaku’s hard work up front was rewarded when he headed home Kevin De Bruyne’s brilliant pass off the outside off his foot to make it 2-0 in the 69th minute and the big striker latched on to an Eden Hazard pass to complete the scoring with a neat finish.
The announcement of the first team to represent the Central American nation at the World Cup finals was greeted by an ear-splitting roar from the thousands of flag-waving Panamanian fans dotted in clusters around the Fisht Stadium.
The debutants endured a shaky start as Lukaku went close for Belgium in the opening minute after an incisive pass from De Bruyne set Yannick Carrasco free down the left, but the striker fired wide. Despite being forced to spend much of the game defending, the Panamanians showed strength, speed and trickery when they did break forward, and they created chances of their own in a scoreless first half.
Belgium wasted no time in the second period as Mertens quickly opened the scoring and as the underdogs started to chase an equaliser the space opened up. The Belgians showcased an array of clever set-pieces and will be happy with their performance against a physical Panama side.
“That first win in the World Cup is always a special moment. Panama, as we expected, played very organised, very well-drilled (but) we were patient,” Belgium coach Roberto Martinez told reporters.
“The second half, that little bit of quality of Dries Mertens and then Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku with Kevin De Bruyne being instrumental in those attacks.” – The Guardian/AFP.