From first to last, the drum beats were relentless from the small section of Senegal supporters. They pounded in the temples of everybody present, creating an oppressive backdrop to this high-stakes occasion. It was one in which England had to show their concentration, their resilience, their quality. How they succeeded, lengthening their stride after a sticky start to set up a mouth-watering quarter-final against France on Saturday back here at Al Bayt.
England stayed calm when Senegal threatened to turn the first half into an ordeal for them and, when they had their opportunities, they made them count. Jordan Henderson does not score many at this level but he was there to get things started and, when Harry Kane made it 2-0 before the interval, it felt as though Senegal were broken.
It was Kane’s first goal at this World Cup. He knew it would come. He even said so during the build-up. The rush of elation for him was familiar but it still felt impossibly good. As it did for Bukayo Saka, who scored the third just before the hour – his third of the tournament.
Gareth Southgate could feel a measure of vindication for the decision to recall him at the expense of Marcus Rashford – the hero of the victory over Wales in the final group tie.
More than the goalscorers, though, it was Jude Bellingham who made it happen. It was the 19-year-old who flung himself into challenges at the outset as England struggled and it was he who ignited the moves for the first two goals.
It added up to Southgate’s sixth knock-out win at major tournaments – England have 15 in total – and it added a layer of resonance to what he had said on Saturday, his line about feeling there was the potential for another “incredible journey” at these finals. A third consecutive clean sheet was another bonus. England can hear the knock of opportunity.
The two-goal half-time lead was what Southgate would have dreamed about but his team took their time to find their groove. The truth was that they laboured until Henderson’s breakthrough in the 37th minute. Their passing lacked zip and the centre-halves, Harry Maguire and John Stones, lived on the edge at times.
England would enjoy an almighty let-off on 22 minutes and it followed a loose Maguire pass. Krépin Diatta intercepted and drove, crossing from the right and that was when the ball broke off Boulaye Dia, who had challenged with Stones, and fell for Ismaila Sarr. Did it catch Stones’s hand? No. Sarr had to score. Instead, he blazed high from six yards.
Senegal played on the front foot in the first half, moving the ball nicely, hinting at problems. Their supporters made their side-to-side dance moves in mesmeric sync. The tie could have taken another unwanted turn for England after the half-hour. Again, the passing was loose, Saka giving the ball away to Sarr and, when he played in Dia, the striker bought a yard off Stones to the left of goal and shot. Jordan Pickford showed excellent reflexes to make the save.
At that point, England had offered next to nothing as an attacking force. Then they made their play and it was exhilarating, Bellingham at the heart of the transformation. It was a flick from Phil Foden that started the move for the opener and, when Kane looked up the left flank, Bellingham was already running, taking the pass in his rangy stride, Senegal hearts quickening. Bellingham’s cut-back was a thing of beauty, all vision and perfect weighting. Henderson’s left-footed finish was true.
Senegal were rocked and England sought to find the knockout. Saka’s cross was behind Kane, who could not adjust, lifting high, while Luke Shaw took a poor touch after stepping up to win the ball and swapping passes with the irrepressible Bellingham. It took Shaw away from goal at the crucial moment.
England’s second was the slickest of counters, Bellingham the catalyst, winning the ball as Senegal pushed in the final third and flicking on the afterburners. He eased away from one would-be tackler and found Foden, who knew where Kane was and found him with a short switch. Over to Kane. One-on-one with Édouard Mendy, he had time to think about it. Good. He concentrated on the connection and it was sweet, the shot zinging into the far corner.
Southgate had been unable to select Raheem Sterling because the winger had a family problem – according to a Football Association update 90 minutes before kick-off – and it was surely a tough call to omit Rashford. As Southgate has stressed, however, it is not only about the starting XI.
Senegal’s fine start morphed dramatically into a nightmare for them and it was all over when Saka scored, moments after Mendy had almost spilled a Kane blast from distance.
England’s ability to win the ball high up was a factor in their supremacy and, when Shaw did so on the left, they were up and running again. Kane was involved and it was Foden who played the final pass, a low cross from the left, which Saka read before his marker, Ismail Jakobs. Saka’s dinked finish was too good for Mendy.
England had put an unbeaten record against African opposition on the line. Never in 20 previous meetings with opposition from the continent had they lost and that took in seven World Cup ties – the most famous of which was surely the quarter-final win over Cameroon at Italia 90. This one might not be remembered as a classic; it came to feel too comfortable. It was no less important.