Gareth Southgate felt his trust in youth paid dividends after watching his Three Lions youngsters guide England past Senegal and into the World Cup quarter-finals.
Nineteen-year-old Jude Bellingham provided steel and energy in midfield while Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden – selected ahead of Marcus Rashford and Jack Grealish – contributed the craft as England won 3-0 at Al Bayt Stadium.
The result sets up a mouthwatering quarter-final clash against defending champions France on Saturday.
Bellingham and 22-year-old Foden enjoyed assists for the first two England goals, scored by Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane, while 21-year-old Saka scored the third from another Foden cross.
It amounted to a satisfying night for manager Southgate, with Bellingham particularly catching the eye.
“I don’t think we could have predicted how quickly he would mature, even in the last three months that’s gone to another level,” Southgate said of the Borussia Dortmund midfielder.
“We wanted to invest in young players on the basis that we felt they could be something special in the future. It’s meant the likes of Bukayo has 20-odd caps already coming to a tournament like this, [Declan] Rice was in the squad at 19…
“You suffer a bit sometimes because they’re not perfect when they come in. But you can see the mentality, and further down the line you get the kind of performances we are now getting. The three youngest players we felt had earned that trust in a game of this size, and they’ve shown great maturity and all contributed in their own way.”
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France will present an entirely different challenge to Senegal, and Southgate is a huge admirer of Didier Deschamps’ side.
“It’s the biggest test we could face,” Southgate said. “They are world champions, have an incredible depth of talent and outstanding individual players that are very difficult to play against. It’s a great challenge.”
Kylian Mbappe scored twice in France’s 3-1 victory over Poland earlier on Sunday to take his tally to five goals for the tournament, and he will be the man England have to pay the closest attention to.
Southgate said: “He’s a world-class player, he’s already delivered big moments in this tournament and other tournaments.
“They also have [Antoine] Griezmann who has played over 70 consecutive games for France, he’s a phenomenal player, we know Olivier Giroud so well, and they have outstanding young midfield players.
“Everywhere you look in every age group, they have incredible depth in every position. It’s a huge test but one we are looking forward to.”
Senegal arrived in Qatar as African champions and with high hopes, but frequent lapses in concentration defensively have contributed to their exit.
Coach Aliou Cisse refused to criticise his players and instead highlighted the challenge they face in trying to bridge the gulf in quality to the best sides in the world.
He said: “We played a very good England team, you saw that, and we just weren’t as good as we should have been.
“We were missing two or three players that could’ve made a difference. But you could see the difference in the teams tonight. We have worked hard to become the best team in Africa, but tonight we were playing one of the top five teams in the world and you could see the difference.
“We were 18th in the rankings before tonight and we were playing one of the big five, so it’s an ongoing process.”
Cisse agreed to add another year to his contract last month, extending it to 2024, but refused to discuss his future when asked.
“I don’t want to talk about that,” he said. “We’ve just lost a game, are knocked out of the tournament, and I will need to draw the lessons from this game. Currently, I am coach of this team, and we’ll see what the future brings.”