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And so on to the banks of the Baltic
And so on to the banks of the Baltic
Nobody ever really knows what to make of games such as these, the final demob‑happy friendlies of a tournament summer.At the end of an energetic 2-0 defeat of a forgettable Costa Rica England’s players waved a farewell to the far corners of Elland Road. From here they will travel east for their opening World Cup fixture in 10 days’ time unbeaten in 10 games, and with a leer of quiet confidence beneath the usual deflationary bluster.
This was a productive run-out for a starting team of Plan Bs and second-choicers, with enough attacking vim in the shape of Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek to suggest their early opponents in Group G may be harried by similar ferreting energy.
Most obviously there was Rashford, who produced a goal that will live long in the memory for anyone staring down its line of flight. Beyond that there were some wonderfully bold moments as a mobile, tricksy centre-forward, completely overshadowing Jamie Vardy, who touched the ball eight times to Rashford’s 49 in the first half.
Behind him Loftus‑Cheek was also excellent. He is a diligent footballer, able to turn in tight spaces, always looking for a passing option, at his best when he carries the ball across field stretching the defensive lines until they twang. On this occasion he completed 100% of his passes although there were only 34 of them. He remains a project footballer, somebody who looks at times like he has learned to play from a book.
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But England haven’t often had a footballer like this, not a flashy, explosive presence, but a genuine playmaker whose instinct is to keep the ball and move it on, to keep things ticking over, looking always for a sliver of space.
Loftus-Cheek must be the best option now if Southgate needs to alter the tempo or unsettle a defence
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with something more subtle. This is change in itself. In the past a Plan B for England has only ever meant a tall, aggressive man with a square jaw and
flailing elbows. This time around B looks to be craft and movement, a footballer who looks to jab and move and tickle you to death rather than launching the footballing equivalent of an RAF stealth bombing raid.
On a lovely summer evening there was also
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evidence of the usual meticulous planning by the FA. Prepare for playing dour Central Americans Panama by taking on dour Central Americans Costa Rica. Prepare for a journey deep into a harsh, hostile, dystopian terrain with a journey deep into Yorkshire.Before kick-off Elland Road was a riot of noise and colour. The atmosphere was subtly different to Wembley, the key point of contrast being that there was one.
From the first whistle those angular corrugated stands were a noise funnel of songs and cheers, notwithstanding the parping racket of the dreaded England band.
Best of all was the startling noise that greeted Rashford’s opening goal after 12 minutes, a bark of pleasure as the ball was sent dipping under the bar and into the top of the net. The goal was pretty much all Rashford’s work, a wonderfully executed example of the knuckleball-style shot from Cristiano Ronaldo’s Old Trafford playbook. Taking the ball in an inside-right position he had time to plant his standing foot and punt the top of his toe through the bottom of the ball, sending his shot on a strange dipping parabola over Keylor Navas, who could only wave it vaguely into his net like a man watching the last late-night cab disappear round the corner of Wellington Street while absent-mindedly cradling a kebab.
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