Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford lay ghosts to rest in redemptive England win



Saka did not necessarily need a moment of redemption. He has only become more important to his manager and more popular with the supporters since his penalty miss. Rashford’s was more meaningful in that sense, but he too was always likely to return and play an influential role for Southgate’s England once he regained form. Yet at the same time, the symbolism of the moment was hard to resist.

Two players who faced abhorrent racist abuse following their last major tournament appearance came away from their next having scored half of England’s goals in a joint-record World Cup win. And if that narrative was a compelling one, then the manner of this 6-2 victory also felt like an act of salvation for Southgate too.

This performance was an almost perfect response to the negativity that has crept in around England since that defeat to Italy and which has threatened to reach a crescendo if this tournament goes badly. It still could go badly, of course, and quite easily too. Yet Southgate’s England have made a habit of starting well when it counts – this was the third straight win in an opening game of a group stage during his tenure – and comfortably beating Iran was a reminder that it is not all that bad, really.

“We have some good players and today they really delivered,” Southgate said. “Our attacking players look a threat, our defence in the first hour controlled the game and were patient. The midfield were excellent and our forwards looked a threat. It is a great maker to put down.”

Having stomached a lot of undue criticism over the past 18 months, it was Southgate’s turn to accentuate the negatives. “I’m a bit fed up with the end of it,” he added. “To win by that margin and play the way we did for the majority of the game, we have to be really happy. We looked ready. We wanted to be that type of team… I’ve got to be really happy but we should not be conceding two goals at that stage in the game.”

Both Saka and Rashford scored in the impressive win over Iran

Mehdi Taremi’s two goals with the game already won were a predictable consequence of the emphatic scoreline and the game lasting 114 minutes rather than just 90. Still, England switched off, got complacent and allowed Iran to come close to a more respectable result. “It is a long time to focus and we just lost concentration. When we play at a slow tempo we are nowhere near as effective,” Southgate lamented.

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But how refreshing, in a way, to hear him effectively tell those at home not to get too excited by the performance, not to get carried away just yet. There has been very little of that over the last year and a half. Instead, it has often felt like the early days of his tenure, when Southgate was desperately trying to drum up support for his players, fighting against waning interest in international football and, in doing so, fighting against the tide.

This felt different from much of the last 18 months and especially the last winless six games. Rather than the beginning of the end for Southgate’s England, as many have suggested this World Cup could be, it was more a continuation of the process and the progress made at the last two tournaments under Southgate’s guidance. That was helped, no doubt, by two of the Euro 2020 final’s more unfortunate penalty takers laying some ghosts to rest.

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