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Marcus Rashford thunderbolt sets
These are the moments when it is probably wise to remember – this being England, after all – that it is never sensible to overdose on optimism before the World Cup actually starts.
Yet there are at least grounds for positivity and increasingly there is a sense that Gareth Southgate’s players are high on confidence, capable of putting together some vibrant football and not showing any obvious signs of the end-of-season fatigue that has weighed them down before major tournaments in the past.
Southgate is certainly entitled to be encouraged after another satisfying win most notable for the spectacular first-half goal with which Marcus Rashford announced his intentions to press for a starting place when England arrive in Russia on Tuesday.
At the very least
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Rashford has reminded the England manager that, on form, he is capable of producing moments of outstanding and rare quality. He can be erratic sometimes, yes, but on this evidence he can trouble even the most accomplished defences and when Rashford can score goals of this brilliance it is tempting to make an argument that Southgate should find a way to shoehorn him into the team.
The reality, however, is that by the time England are ready to face Tunisia in Volgograd on Monday week it might be that only John
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Stones from this starting lineup will be among Southgate’s first-team picks. The latest
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friendly was a game for the back-up players mostly. It was not only Rashford who seized the opportunity – Ruben
Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph both impressed in their attacking midfield roles – but however much Southgate talked about places still being up for grabs the likelihood is that the players he selected for the 2-1 win against Nigeria last Saturday will, on the whole, begin in the World Cup.
The encouraging part for Southgate is that, throughout his entire squad, there is not a single player who could be accurately described as off-form. Danny Welbeck, the only outfield player not to have started either of England’s last two games, was brought on just after the hour and, within 15 minutes, he had doubled the lead with a close-range header. Trent Alexander-Arnold acquitted himself well on his first international appearance, operating as a right-sided wing-back, and there was also a
debut for Burnley’s Nick Pope, England’s third-choice goalkeeper, when he replaced Jack Butland during the second half.
Jordan Henderson, who captained the side in Harry Kane’s absence, played with considerable authority – the choice between Henderson and Eric Dier increasingly looks like one of Southgate’s tougher decisions – and the only disappointment, perhaps, was that Jamie Vardy found it difficult to impress.
The Leicester striker managed only eight touches in the opening half and was substituted after 61 minutes. He could not take his best chance with a spinning close-range effort
and, by the end of the night, he might have been forgiven for wondering if he had fallen back in the pecking order of front players.
Rashford, on the other hand, was electric, a frequent menace to the Costa Rica defence and clearly emboldened by scoring a 13th-minute goal from the kind of angle and distance, almost 30
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yards out, that would have put off many players in the same position. His contact with the ball was delivered in a way that many players of his generation have copied from Cristiano Ronaldo, striking it with great power but in a
way that is deliberately designed to make his shot dip late on, almost like a beach ball, in the final part of its trajectory.
This one was aimed diagonally, right to left, and started off so high it gave the goalkeeper, Keylor Navas, no chance of reaching it. The ball finished in the top right-hand corner and it is fair to say the Leeds supporters in the Don Revie Stand who had booed Rashford’s name when the teams were read out – along with that of Phil Jones, another Manchester United player – changed their tune for the remainder of the evening. Well, until Jesse Lingard was brought on.
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