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Dublin: 15 °C Saturday 21 July, 2018
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Unconvincing England have work to do

Late drama got the Three Lions out of jail, as Harry Kane scored in stoppage time.

Raheem Sterling was one of the England attackers to have an off night this evening.
Raheem Sterling was one of the England attackers to have an off night this evening.
Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

FOR ABOUT HALF an hour, Gareth Southgate’s team were unrecognisable from what people have come to expect from English sides at major tournaments.

The Three Lions were bright, inventive and energetic, playing with the kind of verve that is in stark contrast with the laboured build-up play and aimless long balls that became England’s trademark under Sven-Goran Eriksson, Fabio Capello, Roy Hodgson and others.

England fully deserved their 11th-minute lead and had Jesse Lingard brought his shooting boots, the game would have been all over by half-time.

Instead, the Three Lions failed to capitalise on their bright opening and were nearly made to pay.

It was an ordinary enough Tunisia team undoubtedly flattered by their 21st-place status on the latest Fifa rankings.

Nabil Maâloul’s side, who were captained by Wahbi Khazri — an attacking midfielder who failed to set the world alight at Sunderland and spent much of last season on loan at Rennes — showed some nice close control in tight areas and played good football, determinedly passing out from the back at almost every available opportunity.

Yet the African team were short on self-belief — they rarely looked like scoring and always appeared prone to conceding more or less anytime England got a corner. Harry Maguire was arguably the game’s key player — Tunisia simply couldn’t deal with his aerial presence and it was the Leicester man who won the header from the corner to set up Kane’s dramatic winner.

The Tottenham star’s first goal was similar, with John Stones getting a free header on that occasion, and Kane tapping home after the Tunisia goalkeeper could only parry the ball into his path after the Man City centre-back’s initial effort was saved.

But as encouraging as England’s opening was, the second half featured signs of the old familiar Euro 2016-esque mental frailties.

After Kyle Walker’s sloppy concession of a penalty 10 minutes before half-time, it was as if all the energy was sapped out of England.

After the break, they continued to dominate possession, but struggled to create clear-cut chances.

Tunisia sat back and soaked up the pressure, though still looked suspect from set pieces — on more than one occasion, the African team seemed intent on tempting the referee to blow his whistle, as Harry Kane was comically wrestled by his marker off the ball.

In open play though, the Tunisians looked increasingly comfortable. England’s passing became more desperate and their threat dwindled.

A set piece was looking increasingly like their only hope of a goal and so it proved.

For the umpteenth time, Tunisia’s marking was virtually non-existent, as Kane gratefully headed home from close range after Maguire’s header went unchallenged.

There are positives from an English viewpoint. Barring a huge shock, they will almost certainly beat Panama and progress safely to the knockout stages.

Assuming that happens, in the last 16, they will meet one of Colombia, Senegal, Poland or Japan — not exactly top of the list of contenders for the World Cup, but likely better quality teams than everyone else in their group bar Belgium.

If they are progress any further, then surely Gareth Southgate’s men will need to do better than tonight.

Moments of defensive panic such as the ill-discipline displayed by Kyle Walker for the penalty need to be eradicated from their game.

Meanwhile, the midfield still looks a little short of creativity and the likes of Lingard and Raheem Sterling cannot afford to have too many more off nights in front of goal.

Kane, perhaps the one world-class player on display this evening, compensated for his team’s flaws elsewhere. But unless those around him can step up their game considerably, England will be punished by better opponents in this tournament.

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Paul Fennessy

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