By Kieran Canning
Qualification for the last-16 secured with a game to spare, Harry Kane leading the race for the Golden Boot and a record World Cup win after thrashing Panama 6-1 – England could not have wished for a better start in Russia.
Even accounting for soft opposition in the World Cup debutants and Tunisia before that, England’s record so far contrasts starkly with four years ago when they were already eliminated after just two games in Brazil.
Manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to bring the third-youngest squad on show in Russia is paying off so far as the Three Lions look full of energy and lacking in the fear of failure that has blighted so many campaigns in a 52-year wait to win a major tournament.
Most importantly of all, in Kane they have a striker the whole world will now fear.
In just two World Cup appearances, the Tottenham striker now has as many World Cup goals as Lionel Messi after backing up his double to beat Tunisia with the first World Cup hat trick from an Englishman since Gary Lineker in 1986.
A winner of 57 England caps as a player, Southgate has earned rave reviews for creating a more relaxed and open environment between players, press and fans.
He even managed to douse the flames of the first media storm of England’s World Cup on the eve of the Panama match – over whether journalists should reveal his team selections by recognising the press should not be cheerleaders.
Southgate and his backroom staff also deserve credit for a series of innovative set-piece routines that have already reaped four goals.
Kane has demonstrated that this England side has at least one reliable penalty-taker should they be forced into a shootout in the weeks to come by smashing two immaculate spot-kicks into the top corner.
“We are just enjoying it,” said Kane. “We have been working on set-pieces and working on the way we play, and it is all coming together.
“Fantastic to be through and to do it this way is brilliant.”
Much tougher tests await, beginning with Belgium – who have also hit a total of eight goals past Panama and Tunisia – on Thursday.
Southgate even claimed he “didn’t particularly like the performance” due to a sloppy start and conceding a late goal that leaves England level on goal difference with the Red Devils at the top of Group G.
A draw in Kaliningrad would mean the group winners would be decided on disciplinary records, with Belgium’s three yellow cards to England’s two so far meaning they sit in second place.
Both sides may not even want to finish first, with the group winners potentially set for a much tougher half of the draw that might also contain Brazil, Germany and France.
For now, though, after so many tournament disappointments in recent years, England are happy to have the luxury of weighing up who they would rather face in the knockout rounds, and fortune on their side.
Kane’s hat-trick goal to move one ahead of Cristiano Ronaldo and Romelu Lukaku in the race for the Golden Boot deflected in off his heel from Ruben Loftus-Cheek’s long-range effort.
“The third one is probably one of the luckiest goals of my career,” added Kane. “So far it’s been going my way, so hopefully that continues.”
With luck like that, England really can dare to dream.