England arrived at the World Cup so reliant on Harry Kane’s goals it seemed inconceivable that Gareth Southgate’s side could make a run for the title without their captain being fully fit and firing on all cylinders.
The good news for England fans is that he is.
The even better news for those dreaming of their side finally delivering a trophy after successive painful near misses at major tournaments is that it suddenly does not seem to matter so much whether Kane is amongst the goals or not.
The captain belatedly got his tally ticking again on Sunday with his first goal of the tournament as England swept into the quarter-finals with a 3-0 victory over Senegal.
It took Kane’s international total to 52, one behind the England record held by Wayne Rooney and few would bet against him matching it next Saturday in a blockbuster against France.
The Tottenham Hotspur striker now stands alone as his country’s top marksman in tournament finals with 11, overtaking Gary Lineker with whom he had shared the record.
Remarkably, Kane’s goal on the stroke of halftime from a magnificent flowing move begun by a marauding Jude Bellingham to make it 2-0 was his first shot on target in the tournament.
More remarkably, and the reason England’s hopes are soaring as high as the desert sun, is that it made him the eighth England player to hit the target so far in Qatar.
That incredible spread of goals has been shared by Marcus Rashford (3), Bukayo Saka (3), Jude Bellingham, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jordan Henderson plus Kane.
“The quality of the moves was outstanding and the finishing was ruthless,” Southgate said.
England’s free-flowing attacking football means they have already matched their World Cup record of 12 goals en route to the semi-finals in 2018 and they have one more already than when they won the trophy for the only time in 1966.
Southgate, whose seventh World Cup win as England coach puts him level with 1966 mastermind Alf Ramsey, is the envy of just about every manager sill left in the tournament, including those in charge of favourites France, Brazil, Argentina and Spain.
Bizarrely Southgate was derided before the tournament as England went on a six-match winless run in the Nations League.
The first five games in that dismal sequence saw England fail to score from open play with Southgate getting heat about an over-cautious system that was inhibiting his players.
But a tweak to a 4-3-3 system and a clear willingness to rotate his forwards in front of a midfield anchored by Declan Rice and powered by Bellingham has unleashed the potential of a squad oozing with attacking talent.
England actually struggled for 38 minutes to break down African champions Senegal as the pace of their passing dropped — something Southgate will need to address.
But once they added some zip to their forward movements they looked unstoppable, with Henderson getting in on the act to open the scoring with only his third goal in 73 appearances following a superbly measured pass from Bellingham.
Henderson was retained in the starting lineup after coming in for the final group game against Wales, while Saka, who added England’s third just before the hour mark, was recalled after missing that 3-0 victory.
Just like pretty much every decision Southgate has made so far at this World Cup the decisions proved spot on.
“We’ve got people scoring from all different positions and that’s really important as you go through to later stage of tournament,” added Kane.
With the team’s main striker scoring again, having already provided three assists in the group phase, Rice’s assertion this week that opponents should start to fear England does not look arrogant in the slightest.
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