Analysis-Soccer-Bellingham the difference in England's hard-fought win over Serbia

analysis-soccer-bellingham the difference in england's hard-fought win over serbia

Soccer Football - Euro 2024 - Group C - Serbia v England - Arena AufSchalke, Gelsenkirchen, Germany - June 16, 2024 England's Jude Bellingham celebrates after the match REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

GELSENKIRCHEN, Germany (Reuters) - Midfielder Jude Bellingham proved to be the difference as England started their quest for a first European Championship title with an unconvincing 1-0 victory over battling Serbia.

Gareth Southgate's men can take some comfort from opening their campaign with a victory and a clean sheet, especially with Denmark and Slovenia drawing 1-1 earlier on Sunday, as they sit atop Group C ahead of Thursday's game against the Danes.

But they struggled on a night that belonged to Bellingham, who has been pegged as the player to lead England out of the dark years of disappointment and lived up the billing, rushing in to score with a powerful header in the 13th minute.

Bellingham, who became the first European player to make an appearance at three major international tournaments before turning 21, looked nothing like a 20-year-old and delighted the England fans who serenaded him with The Beatles' "Hey Jude!"

On the heels of a spectacular debut season with Real Madrid, Bellingham roamed all over the Arena AufSchalke pitch, making tackles and demanding the ball. His 56 touches in the first half were the highest in an England team who took the game to Serbia.

Bellingham deflected any praise coming his way though.

"Jude Bellingham is made up of amazing people, really," he said. "It's not just me who turns up and enjoys it like I do and just plays football, it's because I have such a great support network. My family, my friends, my team mates. Playing football is the easiest part."

BRIGHT SPOT

Defender Marc Guehi, alongside John Stones in defence, was another plus. With 11 caps before the game, he looked calm and composed at centre back, a position that has caused much concern with the absence of veteran Harry Maguire due to injury.

Southgate pulled Guehi in for a hug and a few congratulatory words after the final whistle with the Crystal Palace player playing an important part in England keeping Serbia out.

But there were plenty of concerns in a second half that conjured memories of previous England disappointments -- including their penalty shootout loss to Italy in the 2020 Euro final, and their 2018 World Cup semi-final defeat by Croatia.

Their first-half composure disappeared altogether after the break as they allowed Serbia to creep back into the game, and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford was forced into action, making one terrific leaping save in the dying minutes.

"It's always hard to get off to a good start in a major tournament," Guehi said. "The most important thing was to get the win and we did that. We need to focus now, improve and on to the next."

While the ball went through Bukayo Saka and Kyle Walker on the right -- at least in the first 45 minutes -- the left side of Phil Foden and Kieran Trippier was pretty stagnant.

Trippier, who is usually a right back, was played out of position and Foden was not in the more central midfield spot he thrived in during the second half of his Manchester City season.

Southgate put a positive spin on the narrow victory though.

"We had to suffer a bit which I think is really good for us," he said. "Second half we didn't keep it as well as I would have liked but to get the win is very important."

(Reporting by Lori Ewing; Editing by Ken Ferris)

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