Bellingham pushes England past battling Serbs to top Group C

June 16 – Jude Bellingham, the new young superstar of English football, got his country off to a winning start in their quest to end 68 years of hurt and disappointment, but they were given a stern test by a Serbian side who fought like tigers in the second half.

England have a dire record in opening Euro fixtures and were indebted to Bellingham’s 13th minute header, the only goal of the game, as they hit the top of Group C after the earlier draw between Denmark and Slovenia.

The last time England played in Gelsenkirchen they were knocked out of the 2006 World Cup by Portugal.

This time, while it wasn’t pretty, they sneaked home in what was very much a game of two halves against a team ranked 29 places below them and making their long-awaited European Championship debut as an independent country.

Jude Bellingham of England celebrates scoring his Englands first goal with a header 

Regarded as one of the big tournament favourites, England started like a train and when Bellingham ran forward to power Bukayo Saka’s cross into the net, it seemed like they would go on and win comfortably despite Harry Kane – top goalscorer in Europe’s so-called big five last season – largely being kept quiet by Serbia’s muscular, no-nonsense defenders.

Kane scored 44 times for Bayern Munich in all competitions last season but wasn’t the only one of England’s much-touted players who found it tough going. Manchester City’s Phil Foden was pretty much anonymous, possibly because of being played out wide instead of down the centre where he is at his most dangerous.

England have plenty of other options, however, but having dominated possession and swarmed all over their opponents, they allowed Serbia, who finished second in their qualifying group behind Hungary, back into the game as they dropped off.

Saka, for instance, had been virtually unplayable in the opening 45 minutes, giving S

Bukayo Saka was outstanding in first half

trahimja Pavlovic a torrid time down England’s right.

Not so after the break as Serbia emerged with more ambition and energy, moved the ball quicker and didn’t let England settle.

With his only chance of the game, Kane forced Rajković into a brilliant save as he palmed the England captain’s header on to the bar.

But Serbia were the team now making the running, especially when long-serving skipper Dusan Tadic – surprisingly left out of the starting lineup – came off the bench for his109th cap.

Suddenly England were indebted to their keeper Jordan Pickford for two smart stops – the latter nine minutes from time from Juventus danger man Dusan Vlahovic.

While Serbia will feel they deserved a point for their second-half performance and imposing physicality, England can surely only get better and treat their legions of fans who have poured into Germany to a more creative, convincing display.

In their favour was the fact that the starting eleven had never played together and that their backline, considered by most pundits as their weak link, by and large protected Pickford efficiently even though at times they had to defend far too deep.

England manager Gareth Southgate, in his 96th game in  charge – the third most of any England manager in history as he chases that elusive trophy – commented: “They are a strong team. We had to suffer a bit which I think is really good for us. I think to defend the box the way we did was really good for us. I was really pleased with a lot of the play. Second half we didn’t keep it as well as I would have liked but to get the win is very important. Jude writes his own script. It was a super bit of play in the build-up. I am confident we will score goals. Playing against a back five it is not easy to create chances.”

Maybe so but England were far too cautious in protecting their slender lead and when the dust settles, Southgate will surely reflect on how his star-studded forward line lost their way and must start showing their club form if England are to avoid returning home empty-handed once again.

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