Patience is a virtue so they say and that owned by England supporters will have been tried to the absolute limits by a performance which, an opening 25 minutes aside, could most kindly be described as turgid. But unlike previous competitions, at World Cup 2018 England got their result against Tunisia when this could very easily have been another Iceland in the making.
World Cup 2018 Diary: Belgium Cruise, England Leave It Late
Quite how it became so dreadful is hard to understand given that Gareth Southgate’s team attacked the fixture with all the verve and energy that England fans could have hoped for. They should have been three up in the first 25 minutes, and while there is positivity to be taken from creating chances, failing to score more goals against a defence that initially had all the animation of a bus queue is something of a worry, all the more so given it’s hard to think of a worse team against set pieces than Tunisia.
But after no more goals followed Harry Kane’s 11th minute opener – where in Tunisia’s preparation did they conclude that leaving him standing on his own three yards from goal was going to be a winning ploy? – England became ragged in their passing and slowly the Tunisians began to conclude that these Premier League emperors might be a bit short in the clothes department.
VAR concluded that Kyle Walker swung an arm at Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and awarded a penalty. A harsh decision perhaps but once given, shouldn’t Walker’s card have been red rather than yellow? And just how did VAR miss Kane being felled like a cooling tower moments later, a rather more obvious penalty? By that stage, it was 1-1 thanks to Ferjani Sassi’s spot kick.
I’d like to write about the second half, except nothing happened until deep into injury time when Kane was left unguarded three yards out at a corner once more with the inevitable consequences. An England win and Group G already sorted – there is no way that England and Belgium won’t win again in the second round of games against such inept opponents.
For England though, it’s problem solving time and some big decisions for Southgate whose relief at Kane’s winner was obviously that of a man who knew he’d got off the hook. Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling both underachieved massively and when they were replaced by Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Marcus Rashford, the improvement was instant and obvious.
And if Ashley Young can still play for England, so can we. He has to be replaced by the far superior Danny Rose. That aside, take Harry Kane back to the hotel, put him in one of those oxygen tents Michael Jackson favoured just so that no germs can get at him, and pray that he stays fit for the duration.
Earlier, the day opened with Sweden taking on South Korea in a group where the waters have been muddied by Germany’s defeat at the hands of Mexico. It was hard to know if that represented opportunity for those two, a chance to eliminate the champions, or jeopardy as Mexico have given themselves an unexpected three points bonus. What was clear however was that this was a game that needed winning for anything else would start to close the door.
From the first moment against a deeply disappointing South Korean outfit, in their ninth straight finals, the Swedes were on top, creating and missing a whole string of chances while the South Koreans could barely offer anything at the other end. Swedish profligacy inevitably had an air of Banquo’s ghost about it, the spirit of Zlatan hovering above the stadium as time and again, chances were missed or well saved by the impressive Cho Hyun-woo in the South Korean goal.
The Swedes are nothing if not relentless though – you have to be if you’re going to work your way through all those Ikea diagrams – and eventually got their reward with a clear penalty as Viktor Claesson was chopped down in the box, skipper Andreas Granqvist sending Cho the wrong way from the spot.
The South Koreans barely rallied, though how Hwang Hee-chan missed the target altogether with a free header is hard to understand. I think we can safely discard the Asian challenge in that group now for Mexico will surely see them off in the next game. Sweden against Germany though, that now promises to be something to savour.
Without producing too much in the way of fireworks, Belgium made a solid statement of their intent at this World Cup with a thoroughly efficient and workmanlike defeat of Panama.
Sensibly, there was nothing gung oho about them, they didn’t over commit players forward the way Germany had done, but instead they knocked the ball around, kept possession, made Panama chase the ball and gradually wore them into the ground.
When they received the added bonus of scoring just a couple of minutes into the second half when the ball dropped beautifully for Dries Martens and his connection was perfection to drop his shot over the keeper and into the far corner, there was only ever going to be one result.
Romelu Lukaku reminded Cristiano Ronaldo – and Harry Kane – that he won’t have the Golden Boot competition all his own way by pocketing two goals for himself with a deft header and a crisp clip over the advancing goalkeeper, Belgium winning 3-0, a scoreline that reflected the game – one on which Roberto Martinez’s side were operating at no more than 75%.
That is an ominous sign for the rest of the competition for there was none of the flakiness that Belgium have shown at other tournaments when they’ve been highly fancied but have veered from the sublime to the ridiculous. There was a solid reliability not just to their football in this game, but to their mentality. There was no desire to do anything too flash, too tricksy, just a professional desire to get the job done.
What is especially impressive about them is a bit of spikiness that they show towards one another if someone makes a mistake. All too often in modern football, somebody spanks a pass 20 yards too long or gets caught hopelessly out of position and not a word is said, a hand raised in acknowledgement and then shrugged off.
But when Yannick Carrasco went to sleep at 1-0 and allowed Michael Murillo in behind, Thibault Courtois saving well, Jan Vertonghen went ballistic at the midfielder, tearing a layer of skin off him with his rollocking.
That’s not a sign of a team scapegoating as some see it. It’s a sign of a team that has come to this tournament fully focused, well aware that this might be their moment, just as the 2008 Euros were Spain’s, that this is an opportunity that might not come around again. Thus far, this World Cup doesn’t look to have an outstanding team in it and they know it. Belgium haven’t gone to Spain to compete. They’ve gone there to win.