Harry Kane scored an injury-time header to spare England‘s blushes with a narrow 2-1 win over Tunisia to open their World Cup campaign in Volgograd on Monday.
England impressed, struggled but ultimately secured a narrowly deserved victory thanks to Kane nodding home a 91st minute corner. The captain’s early opener capped a whirlwind start from England who subsequently lost their way and allowed Ferjani Sassi to level with a needless penalty before the break.
But in the second half England looked lethargic and Tunisia seemed set for a famous draw until Kane was in the right place to guide in Harry Maguire’s flick. England move level with Belgium on three points at the top of Group G, but behind on goal difference, ahead of their next match against Panama on Sunday. Tunisia meet Belgium on Saturday.
“It’s massive,” Kane said in first television interviews. “I thought we played well, especially in the first half.
“Credit to the lads, we kept going. We’ve spoken a lot about togetherness. It’s nice to see it working on the pitch.”
Both sets of players were bugged by swarms of mosquitoes and midges in the warm-up but England were not distracted come kick-off. They flowed forward and created a golden chance within minutes when Dele Alli won the ball in the box and Jesse Lingard was denied by a sensational Mouez Hassen save.
Hassen then clawed away Maguire’s header but required treatment after a clash with Lingard and would not last much longer. Before he went off he made one more stunning block, denying John Stone’s 11th minute header, but was helpless as Kane turned in the rebound for his first goal at a major finals. Farouk Ben Mustapha replaced Hassen and handled a couple of long shots before Tunisia slowly came back into the contest.
And they were gifted a penalty when Kyle Walker carelessly elbowed Fakhreddine Ben Youssef and Sassi levelled from the spot with a cool penalty in the 35th. England were stung and should have regained the lead before half-time but Stones miskicked with the goal gaping and Lingard hit the post with a chip over Mustapha.
Tunisia scarcely managed an attack in the second half but were resolute in defence. At times their physical approach at defensive set pieces prompted English frustration but referee Wilmar Roldan was unmoved. “There could have been a couple of penalties,” said man of the match Kane. “We had so much joy from corners. They were trying to grab hold and stop us running. Maybe [there was] a bit of justice at the end.”
England, with Alli seemingly struggling from a first half knock, could not reignite their early intensity and manager Gareth Southgate turned to the bench for inspiration. Marcus Rashford replaced the ineffectual Raheem Sterling with 20 minutes remaining but still England struggled to create.
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“I felt positive at 1-1, [but] the pace did drop off a bit,” said Jordan Henderson. “We had to keep creating chances, we didn’t play as well second half but they defended deep.”
Ashley Young sent a free kick curling over but as time was running out Kane popped up to shatter Tunisia, who were left with nothing having been within touching distance of a famous draw.
“In the end it’s unfortunately a negative result for us,” Tunisia captain Wahbi Khazri said.
England won their opener at a major finals for the first time since 2006 but will know they must be more clinical if they are to be a contender in Russia.