Qatar December 5, 2022: This was the champions of Africa against the champions of nowhere, the once lost football nation of England, that now for a third successive tournament under Gareth Southgate look again like they are contenders at the business end of it all.
France await on Saturday in the quarter-finals of the World Cup. The defending champions armed with the tournament’s most potent player, Kylian Mbappé – or at least he is for now. There is a teenager from Birmingham with some skin in that game. Jude Bellingham was a revelation anew on this night in the desert at Al Bayt. He ran the game, the first half in particular, as well as any of the greats of England midfield past have done. Except the national team has never quite had a player like this in such a demanding role. So precocious and fresh, and able to make the difficult things look so easy.
There has been a knockout game in each of the Southgate-era tournaments when suddenly his players have found a sweet-spot, and struck open something golden. At Euro 2020 it was the four-goal demolition of Ukraine in the quarter-finals in Rome. Three years earlier in Russia it had been a 2-0 coast past Sweden in Samara at the same stage. Perhaps the nation has come to expect it and yet here it was again – the knockout game that England never looked like losing.
Senegal, winners of the Africa Cup of Nations in February, were beaten by half-time. Two goals late in the first half swiftly delivered from Bellingham and then Phil Foden, who would finish with two assists, for the old guard of the side Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane. That pair might not see another World Cup but the vagaries of form and fitness seem to have delivered them perfectly to this moment.
Foden assisted again before the hour to make the third for Bukayo Saka, his third of the tournament. Southgate chose to leave out his group stage top-scorer, Marcus Rashford in favour of Saka. He did so in spite of a robbery at the home of Raheem Sterling that required him to return home on the evening of the game. Sterling might be back and who knows what side Southgate selects for that France quarter-final. Safe to say that the England manager who was jeered out of Molineux in the summer is calling it right now the pressure of the tournament is on.
A pattern is emerging now to these Southgate wins. Get ready for a slow start. A patient build-up and then something approximating an iron grip. Then comes the strike. For England in this game it was the five minutes around the end of the first half when they galloped into the spaces that Senegal left and killed the game. Southgate’s players seem capable now of picking their moments and this was it.
Senegal’s passing out from the back, in particular Kalidou Koulibaly, had been erratic and now it was simply desperate. Senegal had lost the midfield and in the spaces that opened up Bellingham, in particular, could smell blood.
The teenager was a sensation in the opening win over Iran and now he seemed to be back in that groove all over again. He read every opening three seconds ahead of the rest. When he intercepted he did so on the move immediately, striding up the pitch like a peak-era Steven Gerrard. He had the measure of the Senegal midfield.
With just seconds left in the half, England a goal up, and with an assist to his name already, Bellingham came gliding out of midfield. He slipped over one challenge and then, as the Senegal defence was drawn towards him, he released Foden on the left. England were as fluent as they have been all tournament. A single touch from Foden to Kane and that sweetest of first Qatar World Cup goals for the captain was dispatched past Edouard Mendy.
A perfect goal to cap a shrewd first half. Southgate’s players had given up a few chances but they had gained much more. The team had built from the good judgment of John Stones in defence. They had been patient in possession. Southgate would be critical later of those early stages in terms of the incisiveness of the passing, but he admitted the possession had an effect. “They tired,” he said of Senegal, “because of the way we moved them with the ball.”
Out of possession his players squeezed Senegal effectively. England had targeted the left-back Ismail Jakobs who was shaky on the ball. They had let Koulibaly pass it whenever they could. Then on the turnover they had broken from midfield with great effect. This was Southgateian football at its most effective.
The first goal, from Henderson, was another example of how effectively they could step up the pace in midfield when a flick from Foden gave Kane the space to pick out Bellingham in the left channel. Once again the 19-year-old carried it just far enough, for just long enough, before clipping a ball back from the byline behind the defender tracking him. Bellingham had spotted in his peripheral vision the unlikely figure of Henderson moving into the pocket of space. He took his goal – his third for England in 73 caps – first time with his left foot.
Senegal had moments. Most notably a strong save from Jordan Pickford with his right arm, when Boulaye Dia was slipped in down the left channel. But that had only opened up when Saka erred in possession. Aliou Cissé made three changes at half-time and if anything his side were worse. They seemed to have lost belief in their structure. Nothing worked. Declan Rice and Bellingham dominated the midfield and squeezed up higher and higher. Kane ran the game as a No 10 and it was from him the third goal began.
This time a tackle on the England captain rebounded to Foden and suddenly he was away down the left, drawing Koulibaly in towards him and then, just as the Chelsea man thought he was in range, a cross whipped through his legs. Saka was first to it in the box and judged his touch beautifully to lift it over Mendy.
In the closing stages, Southgate could rest players. Jack Grealish, Rashford, Mason Mount, Kalvin Phillips and Eric Dier all saw a bit of action. There was some work to do to preserve the clean sheet but, as a game, this was over before Senegal could do anything about it. It has become business as usual for England in tournaments. It never used to be.
England (4-3-3): Pickford; Walker, Stones (Dier, 77), Maguire, Shaw; Henderson (Phillips, 82), Rice, Bellingham (Mount 77); Saka (Rashford, 65), Kane, Foden (Grealish, 65).
Goals: Henderson (38), Kane (45+3), Saka (57).
Substitutes not used: Pope, Ramsdale, Trippier, Coady, Alexander-Arnold, Wilson, Maddison, Gallagher.
Senegal (4-2-3-1): E Mendy; Sabaly, Koulibaly, Diallo, Jakobs (Ballo-Toure, 84); Ciss (Gueye, 46), Nampalys Mendy; Diatta (Pape Sarr, 46), Ndiaye (Dieng, 46), Ismaila Sarr, Dia (Diedhiou, 72).
Substitutes not used: S Dieng, Mendy, Cisse, Jackson, N'Diaye, Dieng, Gomis, Name, Loum.
Referee: Ivan Barton (El Salvador).