Marcus Rashford kneeled down, closed his eyes and pointed his fingers to the sky. At one of the finest moments of his career, the England forward wanted to pay his respects to a friend he has just lost to cancer. The emotions raged.
Rashford had finally made the breakthrough, lancing the tension that had built during a tepid first half against an ultra-defensive Wales, and it was some way to do so – a fizzing free-kick that veered away from the goalkeeper, Danny Ward, and headed towards the top corner.
England felt the shackles come off. Previously, it had been a slog; a tie when it was possible to fear the worst for them. Now they put Wales to the sword, easing towards victory and a first‑place finish in the group. The reward? A last‑16 tie against Senegal on Sunday.
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There would be more for Rashford and, really, it was his night. Given his chance in the starting XI for the first time at this World Cup, he scored his second when he tore on to a long ball from the substitute Kalvin Phillips before rushing inside another replacement, Connor Roberts, and shooting through the legs of Ward. He simply had too much pace and balance for Roberts.
Before that, Phil Foden – another of Gareth Southgate’s big starting selections – had made it 2-0, getting on the end of a wonderful Harry Kane cross, and there was a lovely moment between Southgate and Rashford in the 75th minute when the latter’s number went up: a warm embrace, wide smiles all round.
It was the first time British teams had met at a World Cup and the occasion was always going to be heavy on a particular kind of tribalism. Noisy neighbours? It had felt that England considered Wales as such during the build‑up and not only because of the notorious Euro 2016 gloating video. “They have additional motivation to play against England — from what they are saying,” Southgate said, pointedly, on Monday. His team did their talking on the pitch, although they had to bide their time.
For Rashford, it had not started well. England had craved an early settler because the nerves were jangling at the beginning and they nearly got it when Kane dropped off and Rashford bombed forward; a combination that Southgate wanted to see. Kane’s pass was perfect, Rashford’s run the same and he was one-on-one with Ward. Could Rashford finish? On this occasion, no. Rashford wanted too long, to take an extra step, maybe to sit Ward down. Ward stood tall and blocked.
Wales knew only a win would do and a part of the equation for them was to move on from the shattering defeat against Iran – along with the overall feeling they had not really turned up at these finals. Rob Page had promised Wales would put on their “big boy pants” and he changed his approach, going with a back four. The wingers, Gareth Bale and Dan James, were under orders to protect the full-backs.
England hogged the ball from the first whistle, trying to work their patterns, to pull Wales out of their shape. But for long spells in the first half the movements were too slow, the tempo absent. It felt like possession for possession’s sake. There were some crossfield switches but Wales were happy to keep England in front of them. They were able to do so with a measure of comfort.
Wales barely crossed halfway before the interval. The onus was on England. Rashford hammered in a shot that Neco Williams bravely cleared with his head – the Wales defender would be forced off with a suspected concussion – and there was the comedy moment when Harry Maguire advanced and advanced before trying his luck. He shanked the shot out for a throw in.
England flickered towards the end of the first half. Jude Bellingham ignited one move with a pair of nice flicks that led to Foden shooting off‑target. Rashford leapt into a scissor kick from a deflected Jordan Henderson cross only to mis-time the connection. Foden led a break but Rashford’s final ball was poor. There were furrowed brows when the half‑time whistle blew.
Bale did not reappear for the second half; the statistics credited him with seven touches, but what could England do? Urgency and penetration had to be the watchwords. Southgate’s team located them.
Foden was the spark. He had been loose in the first half. Now, switched to the left, he blasted inside, running at the red shirts, a blur of intent to win a free-kick to the left of centre. Rashford’s conversion was a beauty; the power and placement too much for Ward, although the goalkeeper did appear to be slightly wrong-footed, leaning towards the other corner, perhaps expecting the ball to have gone there.
England twisted the knife immediately, Rashford pressing Ben Davies as Wales tried to play out from the back and nicking the ball away from him. It broke to Kane, who took a touch, made his calculations and crossed low to the far post, where Foden had made the run. The finish was straightforward.
Wales went with a whimper, their first World Cup since 1958 the dampest of squibs. Apart from a deflected Kieffer Moore shot that Jordan Pickford kept out, they did not threaten.
Southgate gave minutes off the bench to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Phillips, among others, and his team ought to have had more. Rashford was denied a hat-trick by Ward, who also saved from Bellingham. On the second phase of the move, Foden could not finish. And, at the very end, John Stones somehow lifted high from point-blank range.