Just 98 seconds. That’s all it was. The difference between England the sterile, the tame, and England marching into the World Cup knock-out stages, buoyant and energised again, Senegal standing between Gareth Southgate’s players and a place in the quarter-finals.
That’s tournament football for you. England struggled to break down Wales in the first-half when 11 men gathered behind the ball and sometimes in their own penalty area. And then in minutes 50 and 51, two goals and blessed relief. England were on top of Group B with seven points and a goal difference that eventually read +7. To put this into perspective, Holland qualified from Group A with seven points and a goal difference of +4, and nobody thinks Louis van Gaal is holding the team back.
Marcus Rashford (right) struck twice to help fire England into the last-16 of the World Cup after beating Wales 3-0
Once again, Southgate made several big calls and they came right. Marcus Rashford, selected ahead of Raheem Sterling, scored twice and started the move for another. Phil Foden scored and won the free-kick that ultimately broke the deadlock. Jude Bellingham did look better with Jordan Henderson and Declan Rice doing the midfield dirty work. Kyle Walker got valuable minutes in his legs which will be needed if Kylian Mbappe awaits later next week.
But we’re ahead of ourselves already. This was about beating Wales and England were, frankly, a different class. The first-half was a mismatch without goals, the second a mismatch with them. Ultimately, the goalless draw with the United States was useful because it least England know what it is like to be in a match at this World Cup. The games with Iran and Wales – 9-2 on aggregate – were hardly preparation for Senegal at all.
It was only after Gareth Bale had been withdrawn that England scored but that is no reflection on Wales’ greatest player. He barely touched the ball. And whatever Rob Page had planned without him in the second-half was consigned to the dustbin with two goals in two minutes. That was Wales done and the number of substitutions Southgate made in the aftermath confirmed it.
And what lovely goals they were. For the first, Foden went straight at Wales back line, until eventually upended by Bournemouth’s Chris Mepham. With Kieran Trippier in reserve, England’s usual free-kick taker was absent. Rashford looked like he fancied it, 25 yards from goal. Danny Ward shifted his weight to the wrong foot, and Rashford lashed the ball over the war and into the far corner. The goalkeeper simply couldn’t scramble. It was perfect.
Wales were rocked and England, as good teams do, took advantage. Almost from the restart, Rashford dispossessed Ben Davies and played in Harry Kane along the right flank. Wales’ back line were all over the place and his cross was met by Foden at the far post, the simplest conversion. That was goal number 99 for England at World Cups and the century wasn’t long coming. John Stones played a long ball up, Rashford bamboozled Conor Roberts and struck a low shot that went straight through Ward’s legs. It was comfortable, in the end. It’s almost as if England’s critics have to invent their own crises these days.
For the first 45 minutes, England were so much better than Wales. Jordan Pickford did not have a save to make, there was not a shot at goal until the fifth minute of additional time and barely a defensive tackle. It was all England. And yet, there was hardly a glimmer of an English goal, either. Pressure and plenty of possession, yes, but clearcut chances, barely any. The best of it came after ten minutes when Harry Kane dropped into that number ten slot that he increasingly occupies for his country and slid the ball through to Marcus Rashford, now one on one with Leicester goalkeeper Danny Ward.
It was a huge moment for Wayne Hennessey’s understudy – suspended after being sent-off against Iran – and he rose to the occasion. He saw the danger early, sped from his line and thwarted Rashford towards the edge of the area. This chance aside, England saw a lot of then ball but little of the target. In the 15th minute, a free-kick from Luke Shaw was cleared but fell to Phil Foden. He shot low, but it was tame and inaccurate, not the most auspicious start from the young man being talked up as the potential game-changer for this campaign.
He had another try after 38 minutes following a sublime piece of skill from Jude Bellingham and Kyle Walker involving a smart interchange of passes, and a back heel from each man. Eventually the ball was worked to Foden who this time shot over.
A minute later, Rashford was involved in front of goal again, attempting an overhead volley of the type Richarlison executed so magnificently in Brazil’s opening goal. Richarlison, it was noticed, was practicing such a strike in the warm-up. Richarlison’s timing and technique, by comparison, needs work. The ball came off his shin and spun harmlessly wide. During first-half injury time, John Stones met with a corner from the left and his looping header almost caught out Ward only to be caught back-pedalling on the goal-line.
Yet if one moment epitomised England’s first half frustration it came when Harry Maguire broke forward and saw space opening up ahead of him in Wales’ penalty area. He looks so much more comfortable for England right now than for his club, and he is clearly encouraged to bring the ball into midfield or even further forward. This time he surged into enemy territory and with the goal in sight, launched a shot. It went out for a throw-in. Down the Wales end, too. You can imagine what the famed red wall made of that.
Wales were poor, no arguing that. Not in a defensive sense because with 11 men behind the ball a lot of the time they were very frustrating. Yet they offered next to nothing. Not through Gareth Bale, not through the physical presence of Keifer Moore. In the fifth minute of first-half injury time, Joe Allen cut inside and hit a shot which sailed high and wide. It was, however, a shot – so unique for Wales in its way.
To be fair, they didn’t have much luck early on when Neco Williams took a Rashford shot flush on the top of his head, as he stooped to clear it. He was knocked backwards and referee Slavko Vincic immediately stopped the game. Williams tried to continue but 12 minutes later sat down and called for further treatment. He was unable to continue; suspected concussion. It was a tremendous blow. Conor Roberts, of Burnley, continued in his place.
By the second-half, Wales had made another substitution and this was a big one. Bale, off. Ultimately, time and a season in which he has barely played 90 minutes of football caught up with him. It is hard to remember a contribution of significance in what is almost certain to be his final 45 minutes of international football. He found a way of inserting himself into Wales’ narrative at this tournament in the first game but, from there, no more. Rob Page, the coach, was even asked about starting him from the substitutes’ bench on the eve of the game. Maybe he wished he had. Brennan Johnson of Nottingham Forest came on but, within six minutes, was two goals down and like the rest of the Principality, heading home.
Follow Sportsmail’s live blog for the World Cup Group B clash between Wales and England.