It is getting serious now as the World Cup heads towards the “Last 16” and the knock-out stages, and the first two of those fixtures have been decided as Groups A and B reached their conclusion. England cruised through with little fuss, comfortably brushing aside “noisy” little neighbours Wales to win Group B and to set up a tie with African power-house Senegal, who got the better of Ecuador in a tense final game.
The other match will be contested between the United States who got the better of Iran and the Netherlands who strolled past the host nation Qatar, to finish top of their Group A is impressive style.
Welsh were always up against it
Going into the England against Wales clash, at the Ahmad Bin Ali Stadium, the Welsh needed to win by four clear goals to stop their fellow British outfit from progressing, something that was never realistically going to happen. However, a victory of any sort for the Dragons, coupled with a draw in the other fixture between the US and Iran, would see both teams go through.
Hoping for a massive slice of luck
In the build up there had been some brave talk from the Welsh that suggested they believed they could beat the English, but it became clear almost immediately that there tactic was to sit deep, try and restrict space and hope for a break at the other end, possibly, as always, relying on a Gareth Bale free-kick or penalty, and then hang on for dear life.
Rashford just too good
Gareth Southgate had recalled Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden to the starting line-up in the wide positions, and Rashford missed a great chance mid-way through the first half. It looked obvious that these two key players needed to swap wings to enable them to really effect the game and having done so at the break they did so in a devastating two minute spell, righ at the start of the second half.
Firstly, Foden drove at the Welsh defence before being upended 20 yards from goal. Up stepped Rashford to rifle a great shot past the Wales goalkeeper Danny Ward, whose positioning looked quite questionable. Then with the Welsh trying to compose themselves, they did the opposite, losing possession in their own half, before Harry Kane crossed for Foden to finish emphatically at the back post. A third from Rashford sealed it, who was substituted shortly afterwards to a standing ovasion from the large English contingent.
Unable to live with the English quality
The Three Lions played out the remainer of the contest in total comfort, and could have had a couple more goals, which would certainly not have flattered them, so poor were the Welsh. They could not handle the high press when they did occasionally have possession, and never matched the energy levels that their far superior opponents displayed.
It was effectively their cup final, but they never got going. Their two “stars” Bale and Aaron Ramsey failed to turn up here, indeed Ramsey was slightly lucky to escape with just a booking after a nasty looking challenge on Jordan Henderson.
Wales bow out with a wimper
They leave with a wimper after all the excitement of qualifying for their first World Cup in 64 years, and continued performanced like this one and it will be another 64 years before their next. England meanwhile march on, with manager Southgate delighted with the control his team were able to take of the game and was glowing in his praise of two-goal Rahford, saying: ” He has been impressive since he came back to us, and he could have had a hat-trick; that free-kick is what he is capable of, it was an incredible strike.”
More to come promises two-goal hero
Rashford himself admitted the team were a little subdued after their draw with the US, therefore confidence had been restored with this victory. He said of his free-kick: “I just tried to be calm and execute what you’ve done in training.” His two goals made him just the second Manchester United player to score 3+ goals for England at a major tournament, alongside Bobby Charlton who did so in the triumphant 1966 campaign. Then is a warning to the rest of the teams he stated: “I have massive ambitions for this team and I think we can play even better than we did today.”
Senegal stun their South American opponents
The first to find out if that is true will be Senegal who began their game with Ecuador knowing they needed a victory to make it through to the knock-out stage for the first time in twenty years. Ismaila Sarr converted a penalty before they were pegged back by an equaliser. That could have knocked the stuffing out of them, but they showed their resilience by hitting back and restoring their lead within minutes, when Chelsea’s Kalidou Koulibaly finished stylishly inside the six yard box to score his first ever international goal in his 67th appearance.
They hung on nervously to clinch the win, although celebrations were dampened a little at the realisation that key player Idrissa Gueye will miss the England game through suspension, after picking up his second booking of the tournament.
Star of the show so far
They follow the Netherlands into the round of sixteen who had a very easy night against Qatar, who became the first host nation to exit the tournament with three group-stage losses, finishing bottom with no points. Their star so far has unquestionably been Cody Gakpo of PSV Eindhoven, who has scored in all three games so far and as a consequence has emerged as a top target for all of Europe’s leading sides. He put the Dutch in front in the first half and a second from Frenkie de Jong just after the interval meant they could play out the remainder of the game at their own pace, without risk.
Dutch looking good and a real threat
They look strong and will fancy their chances in the knock-out against the US who needed to beat Iran and duly did so. It was another Chelsea player who delivered here, with Christian Pulisic sweeping home a loose ball and receiving an injury into the bargain. Iran barely threatened throughout and the victory for the Americans was very much deserved.
They will be sweating over the fitness of key player Pulisic, but even if he makes it, the smart money will be on Holland to make it through to the quarter-finals, along with England who are tipped to succeed in the other fixture.