Classy Bellingham gets nervy England up and running at start of what could be the Summer of Jude

classy bellingham gets nervy england up and running at start of what could be the summer of jude

jude bellingham

Before a ball had been kicked at this tournament, England’s star attraction had, with the help of some Adidas marketing moguls, inflated his talismanic image and breathed new life into the nation’s most tired pop song.

But once the kicking started? Well, Hey Jude, that wasn’t bad.

On England’s launch night here in Gelsenkirchen, it was Jude Bellingham’s header that ensured an increasingly dicey meeting with Serbia ended in a 1-0 win, three points on the board and, given the threshold for qualifying, an early foot in the knockout stage.

Gareth Southgate is now a perfect four-from-four in the first game of tournament group stage matches, a phenomenal record given England’s struggles before, but of the previous three, this was much more like the dogged wins over Tunisia and Croatia than the 6-2 hammering of Iran at the last World Cup.

When Bellingham struck on 13 minutes, England were already well on top and a simpler night looked in store.

After Serbia’s immediate retreat into a deep block, Kyle Walker spotted space in behind for the first time and slid a perfect pass into it for Bukayo Saka.

The Arsenal man, not lacking for sharpness having gone a month without a start, was away and stood a cross through the closing defender into position A1, on the fringe of the six-yard-box. It spun over Harry Kane but remained prime fodder for Bellingham’s late run.

The finish was never in doubt, but was still pleasing in its power. It was vindication, too, for Gareth Southgate’s use of arguably his best player in definitely his best position, when some would have him compromised by a deeper brief in search of a fantasy lineup.

Aged just 20, this is already Bellingham’s third major tournament and at two in a row now, he has scored the opening goal in England’s opening game. Should he carry on even to the relatively modest age of 34, he could finish his career having played in 10. At the moment, the record among Englishmen is six.

There has been some Covid-delay assistance to that fact - had Euro 2020 gone ahead as intended a 16-year-old Birmingham midfielder would not have made the squad - but in the space of three years, of two campaigns and one contest, England has witnessed the evolution of boy, to man, to icon.

Germany may be Kane’s backyard these days, but Galactico status travels. Last out of the tunnel before kick-off, arms raised highest in applause at the national anthem’s end: these are insignificant, inconsequential details that the man’s aura makes you want to scrape for meaning.

The first-half performance that followed was a statement, written notice of Bellingham’s intention to make this tournament his own.

Two decades on from that which a teenage Wayne Rooney bossed, there were moments when you recognised the paradox of that man’s brilliance, a player of ludicrous football ability, who works like a jobber blessed with none. In a needlessly good, waist-high caressing of a cross-field switch midway through the first-half, the impression that this game is all rather too easy; in the chasing, pressing, arm-waving of the second, as England grew passive and dropped worryingly deep, the example that nothing less than maximum effort will do.

And yes, there are probably times when he does a little too much. Loses the ball chesting when a simple header to a teammate would suffice. Ends up out of position having charged after a lost-cause. Tries a little too hard to do it all himself. But what super-hero doesn’t? It is a small price to pay.

It means, too, that Kane can have a first-half like he did here, just one touch in 45 minutes, without England looking short of totem or inspiration, nor the captain himself feeling the desperate need to drop deep and link play.

Should the theme of Kane's quiet outing persist - and likewise the feeling that Phil Foden's twinkling toes are being trampled - there may be puzzles for Southgate to solve but there is time yet in this tournament for relationships to grow.

As Bellingham tired into the second-half (this was his first game since the Champions League final having sat out both warm-up matches) England lost their impetus and confidence, and only just hung on.

But top of Group C tonight, they are up and running - and so too is what many have forecast as the Summer of Jude.

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