Ken Early: England recover from sluggish start to coast past Senegal

Crunch quarter-final date with France set for next Saturday

England are through to the quarter-finals of the World Cup after beating Senegal 3-0 at the Al-Bayt stadium in Al Khor.

Shortly before the game the news had emerged that Raheem Sterling would miss the match as he dealt with an unspecified family problem. The absence of one of the squad’s more experienced players was hardly felt, as England sliced and diced Senegal with a clinical display of counter-attacking, finishing the match as a contest before half-time.

For Senegal there are only regrets that injury and suspension deprived them of top players like Sadio Mané and Idrissa Gueye for this, their biggest game since the 2002 World Cup. Only four minutes had passed when Boulaye Dia chased a speculative ball into the England box, but although he turned John Stones, Harry Maguire got back just in time to snuff out the attack. It was the kind of situation from which Mané often scores.

Gianni Infantino appeared on the images broadcast on TV - but these images were not relayed on the stadium screens. The Fifa president has grown shy of public attention since being booed by fans at the England-Wales game last Tuesday.

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Helped by a nervous Senegal start, England took an early grip and Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane both hit hard crosses across the six-yard line that Edouard Mendy came for but didn’t get.

But the dominant English start soon faded, as the players seemed unsure of what to do with the ball. With Stones and Maguire passing endlessly to each other across the back the early tempo flagged, heedless of the Senegalese drums.

Maguire hit one upfield which turned rapidly into a Senegal counter and the best chance of the game so far. Dia’s effort hit Stones, and Sarr, coming onto the rebound, blasted the ball over from six yards. VAR decided it was not a penalty as the ball had bounced off Stones’ leg before hitting his arm.

England’s evident lack of ideas in possession was a problem - but it became less of a problem as Senegal took control of the game. On 32 minutes Ismaila Sarr beat Kyle Walker and infiltrated the penalty area from the left but Jordan Pickford saved well from Dia’s scuffed shot.

Sarr beat Walker again soon after and the England right-back hauled him down crudely: an obviously bookable foul. The referee awarded only a free-kick, to the disgust of Senegal coach Aliou Cissé.

In almost the next move England took the lead. Senegal switched off for a few seconds as the ball went out for an England goal kick, and Gareth Southgate’s side are at their most dangerous when the opponents fall asleep at the wheel. Kane, dropping deep on the left, turned and slid a pass through to Bellingham racing down the wing; he slowed his run and picked out the central run of Jordan Henderson, who passed it low and first-time into the net. This was the clinical touch Senegal had been missing.

Senegal were now forced to attack, which is how England like it, being better at finishing chances than creating them. They scored again with the last action of the half. This goal was made by the strength, composure and all-round ability of Jude Bellingham. The still-Dortmund-for-now midfielder demonstrated why every top club wants to sign him with a move that combined strength, speed, skill and composure.

First stealing the ball as Senegal attacked, he held off a challenge, picked up speed, dribbled past an opponent in midfield before releasing Foden, who was already streaking away on the left. Foden hit it first-time into the path of Kane, who smashed it violently past the exposed Mendy.

Everyone, including the Senegalese, knew that was game over: scoring one goal in a match without Mané is tough enough for Senegal, scoring two in one half without reply seemed virtually impossible. Cissé's triple sub at half-time failed to change the direction of a second half that turned into an exercise in conserving energy for England.

Foden and Saka were replaced by Rashford and Grealish on 65 minutes, not before combining for England’s third. Shaw cut out an attempted Senegalese move down the left and swapped passes with Foden before finding Kane, again in his deep-creator role. Kane set Foden away down the left and the Manchester City forward nutmegged Senegal’s captain Khalidou Koulibaly with a low cross into the path of Saka, who lifted the ball casually over Mendy for his third goal of the World Cup.

The rest of the game was uneventful as England were happy to play out time and Senegal were out of belief and inspiration. Koulibaly was booked for going through the back of Kane, but if this was defiance it was a rare example.

Southgate, who has been in the job more than long enough for people to get bored with him, has faced criticism for an excessively conservative approach, his supposed obsession with leashes, shackles, belts, braces and so forth. And yet for the third successive tournament he has guided his team to the quarter-finals with a minimum of fuss, and this time they are, along with France, the tournament top scorers.

It’s France and Kylian Mbappé who await England on Saturday, again here at Al Bayt: probably the toughest opponents Southgate’s team have faced in a tournament.

The ease with which Sarr beat Walker - by reputation his most physical defender, the best in one-on-ones, yet tonight looking well short of his best - will have worried the England coach. With Kylian Mbappé in such devastating form, can he risk playing Walker on the right of a back four again, or will he have to switch to a five-man defence for extra cover? And if he does that, which of tonight’s front six does he drop? It could hardly have gone better until this point, but now, for the first time in this World Cup, Southgate faces really difficult choices.

Ken Early

Ken Early

Ken Early is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in soccer