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England find a ray of sunshine
Oh, Harry. At the end of a fraught, at times puzzling World Cup Group G opener there
was an unfamiliar noise around the Volgograd Arena, an odd feeling of lightness in the air, a feeling of double-take. It took a while to register. Applause. Relief. A skirling of possibilities. England tournament moments: also available in happy.
It is fair to say Harry Kane did not just save his England team by heading the winning goal in the last desperate knockings of this 2-1 defeat of Tunisia. In the process he rescued us all from the heavy weather, the unbearable introspection of another slow first‑week World Cup death.
Some will call this a lucky win, papering over the same old flaws,
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those moments when England just shrink, the players lashed to the oars of some invisible Roman slave galley, dawdling the ball tortuously back and forth. But then, good players take those moments. And here Kane did the decisive, destiny-shaping thing twice, finding a moment of space and stillness in the most fraught of penalty area scrums.
In the process he scored from three yards out at both ends of the game, one with his right foot, the other with his head in injury time. These are the goals strikers love to score, the daily business of simply being there, standing still long enough to let the game realise that they are in exactly the right spot.
In between times it was an uncomfortable game, a tournament opener that seemed to be speaking in tongues, possessed by the demons of England’s past. They were all here in snatches, from every half-forgotten horror of the last few summer collapses to the pep and brittle new patterns of the Southgate interlude.
In the opening 20 minutes England should have killed the game. Instead they managed to miss not one, not two but three just‑kill‑me‑now open goals, although the first was flagged offside and would not have counted.
That miss was the worst. With three minutes gone a lovely little knot of passes left Raheem Sterling in front of goal, all on his own, ball at his feet. Sterling did not just miss it, he double-missed it. He seemed to be trying to tap dance on top
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of the ball, to ride it like bicycle, striking it with both feet while haring in at top speed in such a way the ball was left trickling with a sickly, taunting little roll wide of a post.
Next was Jesse Lingard who side‑footed an ugly, creepy, ungodly looking thing wide of another open goal. Finally it was the turn of John Stones who wafted at thin air from five yards out.
Thank heavens, or indeed Mauricio, for Harry. In the middle of this Kane was a blur of intent, dropping deep, playing as both a No 10 and a No 9. Shortly after Sterling’s miss he had a shot deflected for a corner. The kick was headed at goal by Stones, then palmed up into the night air. There was a weird moment of stillness as the ball fell in front of Kane, very slowly, looking unusually white and pristine. And then with snap the day was rushing on again, Kane spanking the ball home to a great gurgling roar of joy.
The Volgograd Arena is a striking thing, rising up suddenly out of the low skyline like a giant, lighted wicker basket at the foot of Mamayev Kurgan, the plateau above the city. Around the bleachers before kick-off there was the usual pageantry of these summer mobilisations, a journey around the isles in hand-painted flags, from Rochdale to Southend to Stoke, up the Tyne,
Forth and Cromarty.
Leading up to this game there had also been a gathering intensity around Kane, who was so poor, and so tired, at Euro 2016 but who is 24 now and who really does need to score if the gears and parts of this England team are to function.
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