England manager Gareth Southgate said before the Slovakia match that he wanted his team to ‘excite’ the fans at Wembley after a stereotypically dull and uninspiring win over Malta on Friday.
On that occasion three goals inside the last ten minutes flattered England’s display, one which was severely lacking in inspiration and a sense of urgency, and it was clear changes needed to be made.
So, for the visit of Slovakia on Monday – England’s closest challengers at the top of Group F – the ineffective Raheem Sterling made way for Marcus Rashford, the undeniable bright spark from the Malta win.
Speaking pre-match to BBC Sport about Rashford, the England boss had said:
“He is a talent with high potential and we really like his mentality. He has been playing very well for Manchester United this season and we wouldn’t hesitate to start him.
“Starting him was a possibility in Malta but he missed some of the training, not only with us but the week before with his club. We have been looking after him a bit.”
After the 19-year-old’s excellent second-half impact from the bench during the victory over minnows Malta on Friday Rashford was deservedly awarded a place in the starting eleven last night, although things didn’t get off to the best start when he made a costly error with just three minutes on the clock.
Receiving the ball just outside of his own penalty area he turned and shrugged off one opponent before being pushed off the ball too easily, losing possession in a move that ended in Slovakia’s shock opener.
The 19-year-old has taken a lot of plaudits for his performances in an England shirt to date but, on this occasion, he tried one take-on too many in a dangerous position and he needs to recognise that.
However, this early set-back only presented the perfect test of Rashford’s metal as a young and developing footballer and to his credit he didn’t let the error get to him, responding in the right way.
He was immediately on a charge up the other end of the pitch, shooting straight at the Slovakian goalkeeper, and for the rest of the first-half his endeavour and desire to make amends was evident.
This burning desire to make amends for his error paid dividends as England eventually turned the game around, with Rashford’s corner finding Eric Dier before his own moment of individual brilliance.
Picking the ball up on the edge of the Slovakian penalty area he produced a superb swerving shot right into the far corner, putting his side ahead and well and truly signifying Rashford’s redemption.
This shows an awful lot about the character that Rashford has built up over his short career at Old Trafford to date – a character already briefly seen this season following his rough reception away at Swansea City – and, in the long run, he is only going to learn from any mistakes that he does make.
Alongside his telling moments of impact he put in another lively shift, scaring the Slovakian defenders with his raw pace and acceleration, whilst he also showcased an excellent sense of ball control in tight situations that has suddenly become such an asset for England, able to push the ball past players.
His link-up play with Tottenham’s Dele Alli in-and-around the penalty area would have pleased boss Gareth Southgate too, with some intricate passing exchanges opening up space in key areas on goal.
It wasn’t quite a virtuoso solo display that will set the world alight but, slowly and surely, Rashford is starting to become as indispensable for England as he has been domestically for Manchester United.