HAILED as the best young footballer in the world by his Tottenham Hotspur manager Mauricio Pochettino, Dele Alli plays with an almighty weight on his young shoulders for club and country.
ut while he has carried it for some time at Spurs, Dele had been waiting for his big moment in an England shirt until the 58th minute in Samara.
It doesn’t matter that it was a close range header, which might have been harder to miss than score, Dele’s first England goal since October 2016, and only his third for his country, could give him lift off on the international stage.
That is certainly what Gareth Southgate will be hoping after he was rewarded for persevering with Dele, who, aged 22 years and 87 days, is now the second youngest player to score a World Cup goal for England behind Michael Owen.
Southgate’s biggest call had been whether or not to keep faith with Dele, who played on with a groin injury in the opening match against Tunisia, which he had started encouragingly. He missed the Panama and Belgium games, and still looked to be struggling with it when he returned against Colombia.
There was then a decision to be made by the England manager at half-time after Dele had endured a rotten 45 minutes against the Swedes by his high standards.
Despite insisting he was fully fit, he did not seem to be moving completely freely from the start of yesterday’s quarter-final, although finding his team-mates, rather than getting around the pitch, was Dele’s biggest issue.
Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele are the men who run the game and set the tempo at Spurs, with Dele chiefly responsible for making and taking chances.
Employed deeper, to the left of Jordan Henderson, he has been asked to fulfil a different role for England and it is taking some adapting to.
There was early cause for optimism in Samara, as Dele tackled Emil Krafth and tried to put through Harry Kane. The pass may have been over hit, but the idea was spot on and Southgate would have been rubbing his hands at what could follow.
Unfortunately, Dele could not find his range in the first half. His next pass, intended for Ashley Young, was sent straight out of play and a failed interception saw Viktor Claesson shoot wide.
Southgate’s desire to start with both Dele and Raheem Sterling, with the latter up front alongside Kane, means the Milton Keynes youngster cannot always find the positions he relishes.
Dele, for instance, would have thrived on the two opportunities that Sterling failed to take. First, Young put Sterling through on goal, but, one-on-one against Robin Olsen, he hesitated and allowed the Sweden goalkeeper to save.
Then, found by a brilliant pass from Henderson, Sterling attempted to round Olsen and opted to shoot instead of teeing up Kane when he had been forced wide.
We will, of course, never know but the smart money would have been on Dele either scoring one of those chances or making sure Kane did.
With England a goal up, but needing to keep the ball better, Southgate could easily have hooked Dele at half-time and called for Ruben Loftus-Cheek or Eric Dier.
But he stuck to his guns and will now have an ever greater belief that trying to fit Dele, Sterling and Jesse Lingard into the same team can work.
It was Dele who first passed to Lingard near the edge of the area in the second half, but the Manchester United midfielder’s shot was blocked.
The ball was quickly worked back to Lingard and he returned the favour by producing the perfect cross for Dele, who had wandered into space at the back post, to head past Olsen.
There was no missing his cheeky grin, as Dele rolled out his ‘Fortnite’ celebration much to the delight of his girlfriend Ruby Mae, who was watching from the Samara Arena stands.
When the board went up displaying his number with 13 minutes remaining, Dele did not want to look. He did not want to leave the pitch on which he had ended his England goal drought. But, once he finally got to the touchline, Southgate was waiting with a hug and there could now be a few more of those to come. — Telegraph
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