England 1 Serbia 0: Brilliant Jude Bellingham gets Three Lions off to perfect start at Euro 2024

England 1 Serbia 0: Brilliant Jude Bellingham gets Three Lions off to perfect start at Euro 2024

WE used to compare Jude Bellingham to other English footballers. 

To Wayne Rooney in 2004, to Paul Gascoigne in 1990. 

ReutersJude Bellingham heads England in front on 13 minutes[/caption]

EPABellingham produced his trademark celebration[/caption]

But now we’re beyond all that. Bellingham is beyond comparison with any other player who has worn the Three Lions in the last half-century. 

If you’re old enough to have seen Bobby Charlton or Stanley Matthews then have a chat among yourselves. 

But watching Bellingham is more like witnessing Muhammad Ali or Tiger Woods in their pomp. 

A man who is so much better than anyone else he is competing with – and with the self-awareness to know it. 

If Bellingham didn’t have such swaggering arrogance, he wouldn’t be the game-changer he is. 

His thumping early header set up an opening-night victory over Serbia just as his thumping early header had set up a thrashing of Iran in the first match of England’s World Cup campaign in Qatar.

It was a classic centre-forward’s goal. But then Bellingham can be a centre-forward, he can be a No10, he can play on the left, he can play deep. This fella has more guises than Mr Benn. 

Still a fortnight shy of his 21st birthday, Bellingham is the on-field leader of Gareth Southgate’s England team.

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He’s their best passer, their best ball-winner, their best creator and since moving to Real Madrid, he’s challenging Harry Kane for the mantle of England’s best finisher too. 

There has been debate about moving Bellingham from a No10 role to accommodate Phil Foden, the Footballer of the Year and Premier League perma-champion who rarely sparkles for England.

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But you build teams around Bellingham; everyone else falls into line. 

England were not entirely convincing here – Kane was largely a spectator, Foden was unimpressive and Serbia gave their defence some nervy moments. 

Yet they won their opening match of a tournament for a fourth consecutive time under Southgate – and they are as good as through to the knock-out stages as a result.  

Gelsenkirchen was the place where Rooney stamped, Cristiano Ronaldo winked, England lost another penalty shoot-out and the Wag circus packed up and left town at the 2006 World Cup. 

But the bad old days of the ‘Golden Generation’. England are a serious team under Southgate. 

Much of the optimism surrounding their chances seemed to have dissipated in recent weeks.

Harry Maguire used to be seen as a problem but no Harry Maguire was a bigger problem still. 

Southgate’s excessive loyalty to his favourites had been holding England back but when he axed several of those favourites, his squad lacked experience.

Trent Alexander-Arnold was too good not to play but then when he turned up in central midfield there were questions over his lack of gametime in the engine room. 

Still, all the fretting since the friendly defeat by Iceland had not taken into account one thing – England are a different team when Bellingham is playing. 

He takes a sad song and makes it better, as England’s supporters sang with their mass rendition of ‘Hey Jude’ after his goal. 

England’s fans had colonised the vast majority of the 62,000-capacity Veltins Arena, there had been a blast of Football’s Coming Home in the warm-up and the traditional booing of national anthems and then we were off. 

Southgate’s team were patient for 13 minutes, pawing at their opponents, casing the joint. 

It all felt too slow – but then Kyle Walker thrusted a pass through the inside-right channel, Bukayo Saka darted on to and his deflected cross was met by a thumping close-range header from Bellingham, who had timed his charge perfectly.

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He cupped his ears at the Serbian fans behind the goal. He doesn’t give a stuff. After scoring at Hampden Park last autumn, he stood and stretched out his arms like Christ the Redeemer, he’s done similar in a Clasico in Barcelona.   

He doesn’t just enjoy beating people, he likes to rub their noses in it. 

Like Ali standing over a stricken Sonny Liston. 

It’s not a typical English trait but it’s beautiful to see. 

Why not show arrogance when you have so much to be arrogant about? 

There was a minor scare when Alexander-Arnold lost possession deep in England’s half but Aleksandar Mitrovic drilled his shot into the side-netting.  

The Liverpool man soon won a fine tackle and Saka – in effervescent form – fed Walker, who bore down on goal but chose to cross when he should have shot. 

APBellingham celebrates with Trent Alexander-Arnold[/caption]

GettyThe England star put himself about in Gelsenkirchen[/caption]

Then came a moment when Bellingham pinged a first-time pass 30 yards across field to Walker.

The ball had gone backwards but the technique was so delicious that the crowd broke into spontaneous applause, the sort you’d expect to greet a crisp drive to the cover boundary at Lord’s or a backhand down the line at Wimbledon.  

Soon Bellingham was beating his man with a swivel and a shuffle on the edge of his own box, driving forward and winning a free-kick – the kid from the city of the Bull Ring, shaping up like a matador.  

Kane had touched the ball just twice in the first half and after the interval it was Serbia doing much of the attacking. 

Jarrod Bowen replaced Saka and instantly centred for Kane, whose header was pushed on to the bar by Predrag Rajkovic.

Then Pickford tipped over a fierce drive from Dusan Vlahovic

Bellingham was often defending deep but occasionally he popped up on the left, performing step-overs and feints. 

If England are to win this tournament, Bellingham will be the chief reason why.

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