Marcus Rashford scored twice for England, the first a superb free kick, as the Three Lions topped Group B with a 3-0 win against Wales.
Rashford has been playing for England for six and a half years and is playing at his fourth major tournament at only 25 years old.
He hadn’t scored at a tournament before the opening game against Iran and there haven’t been many memorable moments in an England shirt.
Gareth Southgate handed him his first England start in more than two years and Rashford struggled to get in tune with the game in the first half but in the second half he came to life and showed the confidence of a player playing at the top of his game, netting the first goal direct from a free kick in a World Cup since team mate Kieran Trippier against Croatia four years ago before scoring a well taken second.
Seeing Rashford perform like this was a reminder as to why people were so excited about him when he first broke into the Manchester United team as an 18 year old, and was all the more remarkable given he had lost a friend to cancer days earlier.
It’s been quite a return to form for Rashford considering his last England action before this World Cup was missing a penalty against Italy and on occasions in the past few years he hasn’t looked himself, completely bereft of confidence and totally out of form.
Southgate said he was a “different version completely” to the player at Euro 2020 and it’s hard to disagree as he’s joint top goal scorer at the World Cup on three goals in as many games.
The big question now is how his performance, along with Phil Foden’s, will affect the line up for Sunday’s last 16 game against Senegal with former England centre back Rio Ferdinand saying “an inform Rashford is scary” whilst past England internationals David Seaman and Gary Neville have both said Rashford should start in the last 16.
A subtle change at half time switching Rashford to the right and Foden to the left sparked England into life and whether he meant it or not Southgate stumbled across a successful formula, within six minutes of the restart England were two goals ahead with both players on the scoresheet.
All this leaves Southgate with a headache, albeit a good one, ahead of the weekends game against Senegal. Last week Southgate was talking of the importance of “meritocracy”, “where if I’ve played well, I’ve earned the right to go again.” By his own words both players should keep their places in the team.
However it’s not as simple as that, to not play Bukayo Saka or Raheem Sterling would be dropping them and if Foden were to continue in the side it feels as if Saka, Sterling and Rashford are fighting for one place.
The possibility of Sterling not playing feels strange, despite having a poor season with Chelsea so far, prior to the Wales game Sterling had started every tournament game except against Belgium in 2018 during the Southgate era.
There have been calls to drop him on numerous occasions including before the Euros where he ended up being England’s best player.
Southgate has remained loyal to Sterling throughout his tenure and has more often than not been repaid for that loyalty but to drop him for Rashford now in a World Cup knockout game would be bold and one of the biggest decisions of his tenure.
It certainly feels like Southgate will have to choose between the meritocracy he spoke about or his loyalty to Sterling. It was inevitable that at some point during this World Cup his loyalty to the old guard of the 2018 World Cup would be tested and many people expected it would have been Harry Maguire but it could be Sterling this week.
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