England 2-1 Slovakia [AET]: Dismal showing salvaged by late heroes in Gelsenkirchen

Somehow, they have done it. For ninety minutes, it looked improbable – impossible even. England looked destined for another Iceland-esque exit from the EUROs, following Ivan Schranz’s first-half strike and a woeful performance that followed.

Gareth Southgate’s tenure had just minutes left, the expiration date seemingly set as 30 June, 2024. Jude Bellingham and Harry Kane had other ideas though; the Real Madrid man restored parity inside stoppage time with a sensational bicycle kick, before England’s captain secured the lead in the first minute of thirty added on.

It was by no means pretty, and it was not deserved in the slightest. Should they continue to play in this manner, England’s quarterfinal meeting with Switzerland will undoubtedly spell the end of the road for Gareth Southgate’s men – but they live to see another week, with major improvements needed ahead of that clash in Düsseldorf next Saturday.

As it happened

When the team news flooded in and Kobbie Mainoo was named as Declan Rice’s midfield partner, there was a genuine sense of optimism amongst the England faithful.

It was shortlived. An early booking for Marc Guéhi was one of many dished out by Türkiye’s Halil Meler, and when the first chance of the evening fell for David Hancko, fans knew that the next 90 minutes would be another agonising showing from Southgate.

Yet despite a handful of early half-chances, the Three Lions were left with their heads in their hands. Less than thirty minutes had been played in Gelsenkirchen when Ivan Schranz slotted home the opener, pouncing on a gap in the English defence to hand the underdogs the advantage.

(Photo by Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

Put simply, nothing England tried worked. The side headed down the tunnel with not even a shot on target to their name, with fans desperate to see something, anything against a nation ranked 45th in the world.

England were slow to progress out of their own half when play resumed at the Arena AufSchalke, but when the 50th minute rolled around, Phil Foden looked to have dragged the Three Lions level.

Having returned to camp following the birth of his third child in midweek, the Manchester City star slammed home a Kieran Trippier ball from close range – only to be denied by a VAR check that found he’d strayed offside. England still, remarkably, trailed.

The warning signs continued. John Stones was almost at fault for potentially the most laughable own goal in living memory, though his blushes were spared as David Strelec shot a yard or two wide from the halfway line.

Those of an English persuasion in North-Rhine Westphalia would be left in sheer dismay as the clock ticked into the final ten minutes, with Gareth Southgate’s men still having failed to register a shot on target. By this point, Bukayo Saka had been moved to left-back – and that just about sums up the evening. Plan A wasn’t working, and there was no Plan B. It was hit and hope.

And hit they did. A moment of sheer individual brilliance from Jude Bellingham in the fifth of six minutes of injury time handed England a lifeline. Rising highest inside the box from a corner, the nation’s very own Galactico floated above the penalty spot, restoring parity with an inch-perfect bicycle kick.

(Photo by Michael Regan – UEFA/UEFA via Getty Images)

But at a major tournament, hit and hope doesn’t cut it – it isn’t a reliable tactic. Simply sitting in the top five of the FIFA World Rankings isn’t enough and relying on moments of magic isn’t enough; a gameplan is required, and England’s wasn’t anywhere near good enough.

Yet there was another individual keen to write his name in lights, one who had been invisible for much of the match: Harry Kane. Eberechi Eze picked up the pieces from a half-cleared free-kick, volleying back into the mixer for Ivan Toney – and he in turn found his captain, the Bayern Munich man’s header handing England the lead in Gelsenkirchen for the first time on the night.

It proved to be enough, somehow, but England’s showing will be looked back on as one of the most undeserved victories in history. This summer will, you’d have to imagine, spell the end of Southgate’s tenure.

Bellingham and Kane saved their manager from a result that would have been regarded as one of the greatest failures in English footballing history, up there with the summer of 2016 in which the Three Lions were so painfully knocked out by Iceland.

Change will come. It must. But for now, what matters most is that England’s summer to Germany survives another week.

The lineups

ENG: Pickford; Trippier, Guéhi, Stones, Walker; Rice, Mainoo; Foden, Bellingham, Saka; Kane

SVK: Dubravka; Hancko, Skriniar, Vavro, Pekarik; Duda, Lobotka, Kucka; Haraslín, Strzelec, Schranz

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