Harry Kane rises to the challenge as England defeat Tunisia
VOLGOGRAD, Russia -- The stage was set. It was a World Cup game, his first as well, with the world watching, the armband on, the pennant in his hand as he took England out of the tunnel on Monday to face Tunisia.
The moment Harry Kane had waited so long for was finally here, but the pressure was on. It was said plenty of times in the build-up to this game that in four matches at the 2016 European Championship, Kane didn't score. It is also true that this season with Tottenham, he went missing in the biggest Champions League matches against Real Madrid and Juventus.
Big games belong to big players, they say.
There is no bigger stage than the World Cup, and Kane had a score to settle. It didn't take him long. Eleven minutes in, Tunisia goalkeeper Mouez Hassen parried a John Stones header and Kane finished with ease from close range. A poacher's goal in his first World Cup match. Not the hardest one to score in his career, but surely one of the most important.
A dream start for Harry, the prince who wants to become king.
The rest of his first half was largely anonymous. Kane was hardly used in link-up play, losing the ball twice and managing only six passes in the first 45 minutes. England's chances all fell to other players and Kane was merely on the periphery of everything, not involved enough. On every set piece, he was rugby-tackled by Tunisia defenders but Wilmar Roldan, the Colombian referee, never said anything.
"I was a bit disappointed by the referee not saying anything on corners, I couldn't get them off me," Kane said. "VAR is there to look at those incidents ... but all we can do is get on with the game."
Kane got his early goal but offered little else, and in a game in which his teammates struggled to find him, Tunisia's decision to switch to a back five after the break didn't help him either. He found himself more isolated against three physical centre-backs, muscled out too often by Dylan Bronn, a right-back from Gent, Syam Ben Youssef, a regular at Kasimpasa in Turkey, or Yassine Meriah, who has played his entire career in his native Tunisia.
However, the most impressive thing about Kane is his ability to always find a way to create just one more chance. He had nothing through the whole second half, not even a faint sniff of goal. Yet on that corner in injury time, he found space at the far post to place a perfect header between Farouk Ben Mustapha (who replaced an injured Hassen in goal in the first half) and his post.
Two shots on target and two goals against two different keepers: the England captain could not have dreamed of a better World Cup debut.
"In the back of our minds, we thought that it could be one of those days where it doesn't go our way," Kane said after the match. "But that's why you work so hard, so you can go to 90-plus minutes to win a game. We got lucky and we got the goal in the end."
Kane's brace, the first one for an English player in this competition since Gary Lineker against Cameroon in 1990, has given his team the perfect start in the competition. What mattered the most in Volgograd on Monday for England was to win. Kane delivered. He is the story.
"We are proud of each other," Kane said. "First games at the World Cup have been difficult in the past. You never know how it will go. We got what we deserve in the end. We made the fans here in the stadium happy and back home as well."
For the rest, the negative and the things that must improve, Gareth Southgate will already be hard at work. Above all, England have to find a way of getting Kane involved more, but now they can celebrate. The star striker has been directly involved in 11 goals in his past eight games for England (10 goals and one assist). He's also scored eight goals in the six games in which he has worn the armband for England.
Some thought the responsibility of being captain would be too heavy for him to carry. Right now, it is him carrying his team instead.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.