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Bellingham elevates England | Can his teammates go with him?

Jude Bellingham’s goal was the difference between the two teams and that was appropriate. He was playing a different sport to everyone else on the pitch for much of England’s win over Serbia.

Back on German soil, the country where he was named Bundesliga player of the year in his final season with Borussia Dortmund, the current La Liga player of the year and Champions League winner with Real Madrid just looked a cut above the rest.

On the night that he became the youngest European player ever to appear in three major tournaments, he was the undoubted player of the match. His demeanour from the outset suggests he is ready to win this. But he will need this team to go with him.

Serbia had not even completed a pass when he poked the ball through for Phil Foden in the fifth minute only for the Manchester City player to fail to control it. Twelve minutes in, he started and finished the move that brought the only goal of the game.

The sight of Bellingham collecting the ball off the defence at one end of the pitch before making that late run into the box to score at the other brought to mind a conversation this past winter with the last box-to-box midfielder to win the Ballon d’Or.


Lothar Matthaus, when asked if any player in today’s game reminded him of himself, replied: “Nobody. No one.” Typical Matthaus bluster. But after pausing for the laughter, he delivered the truthful answer. “He is playing now at Real Madrid. Bellingham.”

Matthaus won everything at international level in his illustrious career so that remains a huge compliment but Bellingham has since won the European Cup that eluded the great German midfielder and may well join him in the Ballon d’Or club before long.

The combination of power and grace in that No 10 shirt had echoes of the game’s most complete players in his position. A drop of the shoulder here, a driving run there. Time and again, he received the ball in tight areas and opened up space for himself with ease.

Harry Kane is the England captain, his country’s record goalscorer, but this is Bellingham’s team now. While Kane stayed high, having the fewest touches of the ball of any England player in the opening 45 minutes, Bellingham had the most. He was dominant.

On the ball, he oozed class. His gorgeous cross-field volley drew gasps followed by admiring calls of ‘Jude’ from the England supporters among the crowd. He completed the most passes in the final third and ranked second for dribbles.

Serbia could not stop him by fair means or foul. He was fouled twice as often as anyone else in the first half and those were just the ones that the referee stopped play for. At one point, he rose from the deck in one movement to glide away all the same.

Off the ball, he was just as impressive, leading the press. Nobody else won more than four duels in that first 45 minutes. Bellingham won eight. There was a feistiness too, epitomised by his trademark rousing of the crowd before squaring up to an opponent.

How far can Bellingham take this team?

Bellingham aside, concerns emerged after the interval. Familiar failings could well undermine England’s chances of success in Germany. Nobody else looked to be at his level and, worryingly, that seemed to extend to decision-making as well as quality.

A lack of energy in midfield, hinted at in that disappointing defeat to Iceland, became a problem again. There was a moment in the second half when Bellingham pressed, his strides eating up the grass, only for Kane not to join him. He was exasperated.

The problem was exacerbated by a wastefulness in possession, an apparent lack of awareness of what the situation demanded – just keep the football. Alexander-Arnold surrendered it attempting a bold pass as others urged him to hold onto it.

Perhaps the shakiness seen in the second half should not have come as a surprise. This win in Gelsenkirchen is the first time that England have ever won the opening game of a European Championship campaign outside of Wembley Stadium.

As Serbia seemed to wrestle control of the game, there were shades of those chastening experiences later in tournaments. Those times that Southgate’s England have come up short, having been unable to press home an early advantage.

They led Croatia in a World Cup semi-final midway through the second half and lost. They led Italy in a European Championship final midway through the second half and lost. But it now feels worth mentioning that Bellingham was not on that particular job.

Jude Bellingham starred in England’s 1-0 win over Serbia at Euro 2024

If there is an issue around mentality, in this squad or even in the national psyche, he is unaffected by it. At club level, the accepted wisdom is that Real Madrid possess an innate belief others lack. Bellingham carries that same swagger in an England shirt.

How far can it carry the rest? England as a team will need to improve. If they can do so, they know they have a player in Bellingham who looks ready to grab hold of this tournament and make it his own. “He writes his own scripts,” said Southgate afterwards.

This was only the first chapter, but it was special.

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