Marcus Rashford knelt down, closed his eyes, and pointed his fingers skyward. At one of the finest moments of his career, the England striker wanted to pay tribute to a friend he had just lost to cancer. Emotions raged.
Rashford had finally made the breakthrough, kicking off the tension that had built up during a lukewarm first half against an ultra-defensive Wales, and this was one way to do it – a sparkling free-kick that s is pushed away from goalie, Danny Ward, and headed for the top corner.
England felt the chains loosen. Previously, this had been a slog; a tie when it was possible to fear the worst for them. Now they have put Wales to the sword, heading to victory and a top spot in the group. The reward? A draw against Senegal in the round of 16 on Sunday.
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 ripped a long ball from substitute Kalvin Phillips before rushing inside another substitute, Connor Roberts, and shoot through Hall’s legs. He simply had too much pace and balance for Roberts.
Prior to that, Phil Foden – another of Gareth Southgate’s great starting selections – had made it 2-0, getting the end of a magnificent cross from Harry Kane, and there was a fine moment between Southgate and Rashford in the 75th minute when the number of the latter went up: a warm embrace, wide smiles all around.
It was the first time that British teams had met at a World Cup and the occasion was always going to be fraught with a particular kind of tribalism. Noisy neighbors? He had felt that England saw Wales as such during the preparation and not just because of the famous jubilant video from Euro 2016. “They have an extra motivation to play against England – according to this they say,” Southgate said, ostensibly, Monday. His team would speak on the pitch, even if it meant biding their time.
For Rashford, it didn’t start well. England had been begging for a first settler because nerves were clashing at the start and they nearly got him when Kane fell 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, the answer was no. Rashford wanted too long, take an extra step, maybe seat Ward. Ward stood tall and blocked.
Wales knew only a win would do and part of the equation for them was to recover from the crushing defeat to Iran – with the general feeling that they hadn’t really shown up at these finals. Rob Page had promised Wales would put on their ‘big boy pants’ and he changed his approach, opting for a back four. The wingers, Gareth Bale and Dan James, were ordered to protect the full-backs.
England grabbed the ball from the first whistle, trying to work their patterns, to knock Wales out of form. But for long periods in the first half, the movements were too slow, the tempo absent. It was like possession for possession’s sake. There were a few crossfield changes but Wales were happy to keep England ahead of them. They were able to do it with some ease.
Wales barely passed halfway before the break. The charge was on England. Rashford hammered in a shot which Neco Williams bravely cleared with his head – the Wales defender would be sent off with a suspected concussion – and there was the comedy moment when Harry Maguire moved forward and forward before attempting his chance. He took the shot for a throw-in.
England faltered towards the end of the first half. Jude Bellingham sparked a movement with a pair of fine flicks that led to Foden shooting off target. Rashford jumped in a scissor kick from a deflected cross from Jordan Henderson only to mistime the connection. Foden led a break but Rashford’s last ball was poor. There were furrowed brows as the half-time whistle sounded.
Bale didn’t reappear for the second half; the statistics credited him with seven touches but what could England do? Urgency and penetration were to be the key words. Southgate’s team located them.
Foden was the spark. He had been loose in the first half. Now past on the left, he exploded inside, running towards the redshirts, a blur of intent to win a free-kick left of centre.
Rashford’s conversion was a beauty; the power and placement too much for Ward, although the goalkeeper appeared to be slightly off-foot, leaning to the other corner, perhaps expecting the ball to have gone there.
England twisted the knife immediately, with Rashford pressing Ben Davies as Wales tried to play from behind and snatched the ball away from him. It broke to Kane, who took a touch, did his math and crossed low at the far post, where Foden had raced. The finish was simple.
Wales went with a groan, their first World Cup since 1958 the wettest of firecrackers. Apart from a deflected shot from Kieffer Moore which Jordan Pickford repelled, they did not threaten.
Southgate gave minutes to Trent Alexander-Arnold and Phillips, among others, and his side should have had more. Rashford was denied a hat-trick by Ward, who also saved from Bellingham. During the second phase of the move, Foden was unable to finish. And, at the very end, John Stones kind of got up point-blank.