Harry Kane may have hit a hat-trick to be England’s headline act again, but Jesse Lingard was arguably the best player on the pitch in their record-breaking 6-1 victory over Panama on Sunday.
The Manchester United man was involved right from the outset, receiving a nasty whack in the jaw with barely 90 seconds on the clock, but he didn’t let it deter him and was at the heart of everything good about the Three Lions in a World Cup game that will live long in the memory.
After missing several chances in the opening 2-1 win over Tunisia, Lingard might have felt he had a point to prove and, if that was the case, he responded in some style with the kind of spectacular goal that we have become accustomed to seeing in a red shirt.
With England already two goals to the good courtesy of John Stones’s header and the first of captain Kane’s two penalties, Lingard linked up with Raheem Sterling around 22 yards out before sending a brilliant curling effort into the top corner to put the game beyond Panama on 36 minutes.
It capped a memorable individual and team display from Lingard and England, who recorded their biggest ever World Cup triumph to qualify for the last 16 in the best possible way.
Lingard entered his first major tournament with England on the back of his best season in a United shirt, and the most prolific campaign of his career to date, in which he netted 13 goals.
On the evidence of his first two World Cup games, he is relishing the free role he has been afforded by Gareth Southgate – of whom he’s always been a firm favourite, right back from their time together in England’s Under-21s – and has seamlessly translated his form in a United shirt onto the biggest of stages.
It was a sparkling display from the Three Lions in the searing heat of Nizhny Novgorod but Lingard was red-hot. The most creative and influential player on show, he shone the brightest, opening up Panama at will and constantly taking the game to the hapless World Cup debutants.
His energy, pace and direct running caused the opposition all kinds of problems – as was demonstrated by the part he played in the second goal, winning England’s first penalty after being sent sprawling in the box.
‘AN AMAZING FEELING TO SCORE’
Tipped by many United fans to make an impact in Russia, Lingard certainly did that and more against Panama, with the crowning glory being his sumptuous strike, which is undoubtedly up there among the best goals of the tournament so far.
When asked to describe what it felt to score his second England goal on only his second World Cup appearance, Jesse told BBC Sport:
“It is an amazing feeling to score, even better that we won. We are top of the table and can go into the Belgium game with confidence. It is great to be around the lads, there is a great team spirit at the moment.
“Of course [England can go all the way] with the squad we have got and the confidence flowing I don't see why not, but we will take it game by game.”
‘IT WAS ONE OF THOSE GAMES YOU WANT TO BE INVOLVED IN’
Also appearing in only his second World Cup match was Jesse’s United team-mate Ashley Young, who is the oldest player in a youthful England squad at the age of 32.
After starting against Tunisia in their first group game at left wing-back, he once again repaid Southgate’s faith in him by putting in a solid shift and showed his versatility by switching to the right for the final 20 minutes after Danny Rose replaced Kieran Trippier.
Having previously spoken of how he is fulfilling a childhood dream by playing at the World Cup, Young clearly looks thrilled to wear the England shirt on the big stage – and in particular on a day that will go down in his country’s history.
“It was one of those games you want to be involved in,” he told BBC Sport after the game.
“The main thing was to get the win and we have done that in some style. There was a bit of disappointment in the way we conceded but it shouldn’t take away from the performance. We made history today and it’s the start of something to come.”
Both Lingard and Young – as well as Marcus Rashford and Phil Jones, who were unused substitutes against Panama – will be hoping to be involved again when England face Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday in the battle to finish top of Group G.
However, Young acknowledged the fierce competition for starting places in every position – something which he feels is healthy for the team.
“The manager will pick the team for the next game, but the boys are showing a lot of intensity in training because everyone wants to play, and long may that continue.
“I think the confidence we had coming into the [Panama] game showed. It could have been a nigh-on perfect performance.
“I have said from the start that the togetherness in this squad is incredible. We are a team that wants to play, everyone wants the ball, no-one shies away from it. We have to keep working but this is the start of something good to come.”