If places truly are still up for grabs in Gareth Southgate’s starting line-up to face Tunisia in ten days’ time, then Marcus Rashford is surely in with a chance of claiming one.
On a night when the England manager gave his second-string players a chance to play their way into the World Cup opener in Volgograd, none impressed more than the Manchester United youngster, whose stunning 13th-minute strike sent England on their way to a dominant victory over Costa Rica.
Rashford was not the only one to stake a reasonable claim. Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Fabian Delph both showed promise in a midfield marshalled well by Jordan Henderson and there was a goal for substitute Danny Welbeck, the only outfield player in Southgate’s squad not to start either of these final warm-up friendlies.
At the back, Harry Maguire provided presence in both penalty boxes. Danny Rose was included after his full and frank revelations on the depression and personal tragedies that have blighted him this past year and impressed at left wing-back. Trent Alexander-Arnold occupied to opposite flank and, on his international debut, never once looked out of place.
Yet Rashford will be the one at the forefront of Southgate’s mind after not only a spectacular opening goal but also an invigorating all-round performance. The youngster may ultimately have left it too late to displace Dele Alli or Raheem Sterling in the starting line-up, but his performance offered a pleasant reminder of the considerable attacking talent this squad can proudly boast.
England began their first visit to Leeds United’s Elland Road since 2002 well, pinning and pressing the visitors in their own half, but no player caught the eye more than Rashford, whose close control, change of pace and fearless running caused Costa Rica problems from the very start.
What Rashford and his team-mates lacked in the opening stages was space to shoot, with white shirts blocking off all their initial advances. Once the young forward finally found some room for himself out on the right-hand side he sent a wicked, dipping effort over the head of Keylor Navas and in.
Rashford was one of several United players booed by small sections of the partisan Yorkshire crowd before kick-off, but Elland Road cheered his name in unison after the ferocious, swerving effort had dropped into the top right-hand corner. It was only the third goal of an international career that is now into its third year, but one that will give Southgate pause for thought.
If Rashford is to start in Volgograd on the back of this performance, it may mean that the England manager breaks with recent trends and retains the two-striker formation he tested here. Rashford’s partner up top, Jamie Vardy, almost added a second goal some minutes after the first but the bounce on Maguire’s downward header came at him awkwardly and Navas smothered his shot from close range.
The Real Madrid goalkeeper was Costa Rica’s most involved player in the opening half, with his team-mates offering nothing but a Johan Venegas shot from range that was parried by Jack Butland. Other than that, England found it almost too easy to control possession and with it, the pace of the game. Their only regret at the interval was that, for all their domination, they had not tested Navas more.
Henderson, standing in as captain for Harry Kane, sought to put that right at the start of the second half by lashing a bouncing ball at goal from just outside the penalty area. Navas, though, was always behind the strike and beat it away. Maguire came close to opening his international account from the resulting corner but Bryan Oviedo, formerly of Everton, managed to clear before the ball could cross the line.
England’s deserved second finally arrived with quarter-of-an-hour to play. Rashford had a hand in it again, combining well with Alli on the left flank to pick through the visiting defence. The Tottenham Hotspur playmaker arced a cross around Costa Rica’s backline and found Welbeck, who converted with a diving header and made the scoreline more reflective of England’s superiority.
It could, perhaps should, have ended more than 2-0. Costa Rica were poor, a shadow of the team that topped England’s group at the last World Cup four years ago and were only denied a place in the semi-finals by a penalty shoot-out defeat. Still, this was a welcome win and a positive performance. England will travel eastwards on Tuesday in good spirits with that suspicious sense of pre-tournament optimism building behind them.
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