Bellingham’s class saves patchy England in Euros opener

England 1 Serbia 0

Jude Bellingham’s goal proved to be the match winner as England began their UEFA Euro 2024 campaign with a hard fought but uninspiring 1-0 victory over Serbia in Gelsenkirchen.

After a debut season at Real Madrid that saw the 20-year old earn a Champions League winners medal against Borussia Dortmund at Wembley at the start of the month – in addition to being voted La Liga Player of the Year, the precociously talented twenty year old powerfully nodded home Bukayo Saka’s deflected cross in the thirteenth minute to give Gareth Southgate’s side the lead following an impressive start.

Despite the Euro 2020 runners-up looking to be well on course to overcome the Serbians comfortably in the initial stages, after a visible drop off in ideas and intensity in the closing stages of the first half, England found themselves firmly under pressure following the break, with keeper Jordan Pickford being called upon several times to keep the Serb attack at bay – including a fine save from Dusan Vlahović near the end.

Ten minutes before the end, West Ham’s Jarrod Bowen – having just come on as sub for Saka – lost his marker on the right to cross and set up a great chance for Harry Kane at the back post, only for the England skipper’s close range header to be superbly tipped onto the crossbar by Predrag Rajković.

The Three Lions held firm for the rest of the game to claim the win and move to the top of Group C.

England have now kept a clean sheet in their last five Euros group stage matches – the longest ever run in the competition. In addition, they have also won each of their four-opening tournament (Euros and World Cup) matches under Southgate.

Despite the unconvincing manner of the performance, the overall objective of picking up the three points on the night was achieved but without doubt, improvement is required if England are to begin to live up to their billing as one of the pre-tournament favourites.

Southgate spoke following the match: “Today was just the finishing and a good save from the goalkeeper from the (Kane) header at the end.

“But that will come. I’m confident we will score goals. You’re playing against a back five. It’s not easy to create chances, but we did and in the end one was enough.

“That’s the reality of tournaments. They’re a strong team. We had to suffer a bit, which I think is really good for us, to come through and defend our box the way we did. The pressure was important for the group.

“We had good chances to extend the lead and kill the game, which we didn’t manage to take. So I was really pleased with a lot of the play, especially the first half, I thought we used the ball really well.

“Second half, we didn’t keep it quite as well as we need to, but to get the win and the start we have is really important.’

Southgate praised match-winner Bellingham, adding: “He writes his own scripts, doesn’t he? The timing of his runs, it was a super bit of play in the build-up to the goal as well and I thought at different moments all of our forward players looked dangerous and did a good job for the team.

“They’re a very tough side, very robust, strong. They’re a big group of lads and it was important we prepared well for this game and we did, the staff got it right. We prepared all week very well and when it came to our roles, we knew what we had to do. We knew it was going to be a tight game.

“There’s been a lot of goals in the other games, but I think we try to keep to our standards and play the opposition that’s in front of us and not the theme of the tournament, if you like.

“Important that we got off to a good start. Positive inside the camp, but on to the next one.”

Harry Kane said: “We knew it was going to be a tough game and I think we dealt with it really well.”

England’s next Euro 2024 Group C qualifier is against Denmark in Deutsche Bank Park, Frankfurt on Thursday (5.00pm)

England: Pickford, Walker, Rice, Stones, Guehi, Saka (Bowen 76’) Alexander-Arnold (Gallagher 69’) Kane (Capt.) Bellingham (Mainoo 86’) Foden, Trippier. Subs not used: Shaw, Ramsdale, Konsa, Dunk, Toney, Gordon, Watkins, Eze, Gomez, Henderson, Palmer, Wharton.

Serbia: Rajković, Pavlović, Milenković, Veljković, Kostić (Mladenović 43′) Gudelj (Ilić 46’) Lukić (Jović 61’) Živković (Birmančević 74’) Milinković-Savić, Vlahović, Mitrović (Capt.) (Tadić 61’) Subs not used: Babić, Gaćinović, Maksimović, Mijailović, Milinković-Savić, Petrović, Ratkov, Samardžić, Spajić, Stojić.

Referee: Daniele Orsato

Assistants: Ciro Carbone & Alessandro Giallatini

Fourth Official: Ivan Kruzliak

VAR: Massimiliano Irrati

Assistant VAR 1: Paolo Valeri

Assistant VAR 2: Catalin Popa