Laughing Bukayo Saka and revived Marcus Rashford wash away penal heartache in Euros final

Laughing Bukayo Saka and revived Marcus Rashford wash away penal heartache in Euros final

Rarely did Marcus Rashford score a goal with the assurance he did on a Monday afternoon.

When the Manchester United player came on as a substitute with 20 minutes left, his first involvement was to receive the ball on the right, cut in a defender on his left foot and pass the ball into the net.

It was a goal scored so easily on an afternoon when everything felt and seemed so simple for England.

Rarely did Marcus Rashford score a goal with the assurance he did on a Monday afternoon

Rarely did Marcus Rashford score a goal with the assurance he did on a Monday afternoon

This was a day to exorcise some ghosts. Rashford’s goal came in virtually his first touch for his country since missing a penalty in the shootout that England lost to Italy in the European Championship final 16 months ago. Earlier, Bukayo Saka scored twice very nicely.

Saka had also missed a penalty – the deciding one – in that shootout at Wembley and left the pitch crying on his manager’s shoulder, straight into a furious social media storm. Here, the Arsenal striker – chosen for Manchester City’s Phil Foden – couldn’t stop smiling.

They say football runs in cycles and this could be the day that marks the end of a difficult revolution for two talented young players and, more broadly, Gareth Southgate’s England team.

The Manchester United player came on as a substitute with 20 minutes to play

The Manchester United player came on as a substitute with 20 minutes to play

Rashford had just three touches before finding the back of the net against Iran

Rashford had just three touches before finding the back of the net against Iran

Saka used to come to Qatar with England. Southgate adores him. However, it was not initially intended that he would start here.

As for Rashford, he occupied one of the very last seats on the plane when it left Birmingham for Doha last Tuesday. In June, after a 0-0 dismal Nations League draw with Italy at Molineux, Southgate virtually wrote Rashford off for this tournament.

It says everything about his resurgence under new Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag that Rashford was not only able to make this squad, but also brought confidence and swagger to his team after a series of second-half substitutions.

Southgate has always admired Rashford. Before the European Championship, he sat down the 25-year-old and warned him that he would likely only be used as an impact substitute. Players like Foden and Saka got ahead of him.

It was a goal scored with ease on an afternoon when everything looked simple for England

It was a goal scored with ease on an afternoon when everything looked simple for England

Gareth Southgate's team won the opening game of the World Cup 6-2 on Monday afternoon

Gareth Southgate’s team won the opening game of the World Cup 6-2 on Monday afternoon

However, Rashford took the news well and vowed to play his part. He failed in that tournament, but has already left his mark on this one.

This was not a perfect England performance. They conceded twice in the second half and Iran also hit the crossbar late. Very occasionally there were rays of light between England’s centre-backs and full-backs. Southgate will not be blind to that.

Overall, though, this was pretty much as good as an opening match of a World Cup and could still be a victory that lightens the England tournament’s touch paper, much like their 6-1 win against Panama did at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

Iran was so horrible that their 20 full-time FIFA rankings seemed ridiculous. There is a certain context in which this result must be placed.

Iran’s ranking is largely earned against teams and countries of similar nature and position in World Cup qualification. In two games against Cambodia, for example, they won 10-0 and 14-0.

Bukayo Saka played an excellent game, finding the back of the net twice for England against Iran

Bukayo Saka played an excellent game, finding the back of the net twice for England against Iran

You have to go all the way back to the group stage of the last World Cup and a 1-1 draw with Portugal to find the last time Iran played someone of any position. So a team that had absolutely no preparation for a game of this magnitude looked exactly like this.

Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz – once an assistant to Sir Alex Ferguson at Old Trafford – spoke to England the night before the game so much that his team must have felt that this was an impossible task.

From the moment the brilliant Jude Bellingham headed in England’s first goal in the 35th minute, that was exactly what this became.

Iran’s fans – occupying the stands behind which their team scored their two goals – were amazing. They greeted those moments with great enthusiasm.

However, this was England’s day, and the wave of confidence that such a convincing victory will give them will be the most valuable of all.

Saka and Rashford washed away the heartache of the Euro 2020 final (pictured above)

Saka and Rashford washed away the heartache of the Euro 2020 final (pictured above)

Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz (above) so talked England up the night before the match that his team must have felt this was an impossible task

Iranian coach Carlos Queiroz (above) so talked England up the night before the match that his team must have felt this was an impossible task

In two hours of football, all the uncertainty and caution that could be seen in that miserable six-match winless streak that preceded this World Cup was wiped out and that is the beauty of football. Sometimes it only takes one goal or just one game to change direction.

At full-time, we saw Neil Diamond pop and England players climb into the crowd to see their loved ones. It was like Wembley again in the summer of 2021.

That summer was one that went well, until the last moments. A winter in the desert has now begun on exactly the same lines.

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