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Harry Kane delivers as England show positives and room for improvement against Tunisia

11:19 pm, 18th June 2018

They tried to haul him down. They tried to wrestle him to the ground. But Harry Kane, England’s captain, refused to be restrained.

Goalless at Euro 2016, the pressure was on Kane to deliver in Russia – and he did just that against Tunisia. Two years ago he was on corners, now he’s on the end of them.

How he had to fight for those two vital goals, though, his first in a major international tournament.

Tunisia’s set-piece defending at times bore closer resemblance to wrestling and on at least two occasions Kane appeared to be grappled out of contention. VAR, remarkably, provided no relief.

But Kane’s close-range finishes – coming when he evaded his markers – bookended the battle in the box and delivered England a deserved three points to go level with Belgium at the top of Group G.

Harry the hero, then – but the very fact England needed their star striker to nod home in injury time underlines that there is still work for boss Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff to do to ready these players for the tougher tests to come.

First there had been the frenzy. This young England team came flying out of the blocks, chasing, harassing and harrying their opponents. Forcing errors. Forcing openings.

Jesse Lingard was denied the first of what should have been a fistful of first-half goals by the goalkeeper’s boot after Dele Alli had caught a defender dithering just two minutes in.

England increased the intensity, with Harry Maguire a towering threat from corner-kicks. The centre-back forced Tunisia shot-stopper Mouez Hassen, already suffering with a shoulder problem, into a smart save.

Then there were fireworks when John Stones banged a header at goal from another corner and perfectly-placed Kane tucked in the rebound.

But that good feeling and growing excitement took a hit as VAR had its say in both boxes.

Kyle Walker was punished for a careless flail of his arm at Fakhreddine Ben Youssef, with the officials watching in Moscow backing the referee’s instant instinct to award a penalty.

Surprisingly they refused to step in when Kane was tackled to the floor in far more convincing fashion minutes later, though.

England were pegged back to 1-1 but there was still time in the half for Lingard to go close again, touching a Kieran Trippier pass past sub stopper Farouk Ben Mustapha – but onto the post.

The feeling at the break was that if England were to maintain that first-half application they would continue to create – and surely, this time, score – more chances.

But that sparkle seemed to fizzle out in the second half. England and Southgate were presented with familiar problems: immovable opponents, niggly fouls, heat and humidity draining English legs.

Throw in flies and VAR to add to the frustration.

Gone was the whizz and snap in England’s pressing. The forwards who had darted at their opponents in the first 45 were now stuck on their heels. Passing sideways. Passing off target. Unable to raise the tempo and intensity.

Marcus Rashford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek were sent on to renew and re-energise and both eagerly demanded the ball. But it was another set-piece special which finally did the damage.

Trippier’s corner was flicked on by Maguire for Kane to glance in at the back post, sparking wild celebrations.

It was England’s first injury-time goal in regular time of a World Cup match ever. And it was clear what it meant to the players and the travelling fans.

The goal transformed how England will reflect on the game – and their hopes of making it to the knockout phase. A win over Panama will now put them on the brink of the next round. A draw would have put pressure on that daunting final fixture with Belgium.

It is in those knockout games where England’s poor finishing will be more sternly punished. That’s where they cannot afford to drop their levels.

But with captain Kane in form and firing there could yet be plenty more to cheer.

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