Jude Bellingham gives England winning start but Serbia make Southgate sweat

Jude Bellingham gives England winning start but Serbia make Southgate sweat

England are up and running. Again. It has been a happy feature of the Gareth Southgate years that his team always win their opening game at tournaments. It never used to be the case with England but to the list that features Tunisia, Croatia and Iran can be added the name of Serbia.

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It was a nervy second half, a stark contrast to the enjoyment and expression of the first, which had been epitomised by Jude Bellingham, whose early bullet header would prove decisive. England dropped deep, stirring a few uncomfortable memories but trusting their ability to hold an extremely physical Serbia at bay.

There were periods when England struggled to get out, their passing options were restricted and it was easy to fret. Serbia pushed. And yet in the final analysis, Jordan Pickford was not overly tested, the goalkeeper’s only big save being the tip-over from Dusan Vlahovic’s drive on 82 minutes.

It was the players in front of him who put in the hard yards, who brought the resilience, particularly the central defenders, John Stones and Marc Guéhi. Their only previous appearances together for England had been in the home defeats by Hungary and Iceland. This was much better.

Bellingham had been the star turn before the interval, a heady mix of aggression and incision, and even though the team performance was far from perfect, the result meant everything. The pre-tournament worries had been numerous. Fitness. Players out of position. The burden of favouritism. England have a basis from which to build.

Southgate’s midfield was always going to be a subplot and it was effective in the first half, Phil Foden’s licence to drift into central areas from the left pronounced. Bellingham was the No 10. He was also the left-sided No 8. He dropped deep at times. But it was when he attacked the six-yard box in the 13th minute that he gave England the start they had dreamed about.

The celebratory pose was familiar, Bellingham standing with his arms outstretched, and what a header it was, loaded with raw aggression but control, too. Trent Alexander-Arnold had found Kyle Walker and it was the right-back who ignited the move, ushering in Bukayo Saka up the right. Across came Strahinja Pavlovic, intent on taking man, ball, either, both. He got a bit of the ball when Saka crossed, affecting the flight. Bellingham read it, surging inside Andrija Zivkovic to plant the header high into the net.

Serbia gave no quarter, leaving plenty on England in the challenges, Bellingham feeling a few in the first half. It seemed to fire him up even more. He was in the mood and he decorated the first half with some wonderful moments. How about the side-on volleyed crossfield pass with the outside of his right boot? Or the shoulder drop, the surge upfield, the riding of a challenge and then another thrilling run? It looked as though he was in the playground.

Alexander-Arnold had a few nice moments before the interval but he also had a very bad one when his loose touch allowed Zivkovic to supply Aleksandar Mitrovic for a meaty drive that flew wide. ­Alexander-Arnold was a mixed bag and Southgate replaced him with Conor Gallagher in the second half.

Saka menaced up the right with his quick feet and explosive acceleration. He had the beating of his man and he also released Walker for a run after Alexander-Arnold had stretched to make an interception. Walker’s low cross was just in front of Foden.

Serbia pushed higher from the restart, especially the wing-backs in their 5-3-2 system. Sergej Milinkovic-Savic, the dangerman midfielder, was given greater scope. Dusan Tadic came off the bench. This Serbia team usually score. Their support turned up the decibel levels. The tension was extraordinary.

A detail from the first period was that Kane touched the ball only twice. The captain was more prominent after the interval, although much of his work was more akin to wrestling in his efforts to hold the ball up, to give England an outlet.

Serbia knocked England out of their stride and it was alarming to see Southgate’s players sink back. They invited pressure and Serbia were close to getting in on goal, Pickford diving in on one occasion to grab the ball in front of Mitrovic.

The second half was not a siege of the England goal but it had some of the trappings of one. Serbia made it uncomfortable. Southgate introduced Jarrod Bowen for Saka and the substitute did well, crossing for Kane to extend Predrag Rajkovic with a header. It was a brilliant save from the goalkeeper, who was able to tip the ball up against the crossbar and away.

It was at the other end where ­England had to get it right. Pickford’s save from Vlahovic was a good one and when Kane made a clearing header to repel a shot from the substitute Veljko Birmancevic it was an example of all hands to the pump. But England did enough.