England off to winning start as Harry Kane plays hero vs. Tunisia
VOLGOGRAD, Russia -- Three quick thoughts from Volgograd Arena after Harry Kane's stoppage time goal gave England a 2-1 win over Tunisia to open their World Cup:
1. Kane rescues England in dramatic fashion
Kane secured England's first opening game victory at a major tournament since the 2006 World Cup but the Tottenham forward left it late, requiring a stoppage time header to seal a 2-1 win against Tunisia in Volgograd.
Having dominated proceedings following Kane's 11th-minute opener, England began to run out of ideas after Fenjani Sassi's 33rd-minute penalty had given the Tunisians an unexpected lifeline. But Kane ensured that England got their Russia 2018 campaign off to the perfect start by heading in at the far post in the 90th minute -- a goal that earned a deserved win following a series of controversial incidents.
Another win against Panama in Nizhny-Novgorod on Sunday will confirm England's progression to the round of 16 but for long periods of the second half, it appeared as though Gareth Southgate's men were facing a frustrating start to the World Cup. A host of missed chances in the first half enabled Tunisia to stay in touch and keep hope of a way back into the game, and they were gifted that when Colombian referee Wilmar Roldan awarded a soft penalty after Kyle Walker's flailing arm struck Fakhreddine Ben Youssef while a cross was floated into the box.
With Kane twice being denied a penalty after being fouled in the Tunisia area, England looked set to be denied by bad finishing and poor refereeing.
Ineffective performances by Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli also hampered England, but Kane delivered when it mattered and Southgate's team can now prepare for a place in the knockout rounds.
2. England show their naivety and inexperience
Monday night saw England's most inexperienced World Cup lineup, in terms of combined appearances, since 1962 and it showed as they almost fluffed their lines against Tunisia.
In the first half, England had enough chances to race into a four- or five-goal lead but some wasteful finishing, by Jesse Lingard in particular, allowed Tunisia to cancel out Kane's opening goal. Prior to Tunisia's equaliser, England were utterly dominant but still gave their opponents hope with defensive lapses and an inability to capitalise on their period of dominance.
At the highest level, it is crucial to take chances when they arise and England failed to do that until Kane rescued them at the death with his stoppage-time header. Despite the result, their sloppiness before will concern Southgate. England allowed carelessness to creep in at the back and offered a limited Tunisia team the chance to get back into a game they should have been out of within the opening half-hour.
Teams that have experience of playing at the highest level, like at World Cups, know how to manage a game and stem the tide when they need to. But at this stage, England simply do not have the players capable of taking a grip of the game and calming their teammates when they are losing momentum.
Kane came to the rescue in the end, but England need to be better than this if they have to have a chance of reaching the latter stages.
3. Forget VAR: FIFA must get to grips with grappling
This was not a great night for the match officials or VAR. Referee Roldan awarded Tunisia a first-half penalty without consulting VAR, after Walker's arm caught the face of F. Ben Youssef. Although it appeared to be a soft decision, Walker was careless to have defended with his back to his opponent; the referee deserves the benefit of the doubt on that one.
Where he and VAR fell short, though, was when Kane was twice wrestled to the ground in the penalty area with no foul awarded for the England captain. In the first half, a John Stones shove on a Tunisia defender at a corner probably negated the rugby tackle on Kane seconds later. But after the break, Kane was once again grappled and shoved to the ground with neither the referee nor VAR taking action. Harry Maguire was also on the receiving end of some heavy-handed Tunisian defending in the first half as another incident that went unpunished.
Holding, shirt-tugging and grappling at set-pieces has become an increasing problem in the game in recent years, and one that FIFA has attempted to eradicate. But Tunisia were allowed to get away with crossing the line in this game and England can be justified in feeling hard done to by the officials, both on the pitch and in the VAR suite, until Kane scored their late winner.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_