KEIR RADNEDGE in GELSENKIRCHEN: Sir Bobby Robson, once asked the priority for any manager at a major tournament, answered: “Two of them: one, win your first match and, second, win your first match.”

Robson’s latest successor as England manager, Gareth Southgate, might have preferred less challenging opposition than Serbia to launch the attempt to bring home that elusive major prize. Still, all’s well that ends well and a 1-0 win was due reward for a hard night’s work.

Serbia, appearing at the finals for the first time in 24 years, brought Premier League experience of their own to the party, notably in top scorer Aleksandar Mitrovic. They also attacked England on the back of a pre-match message of encouragement from Novak Djokovic who knows all about winning big matches.

Jude Bellingham . . . official man of the match

As a counter measure Southgate, after all the speculation, opted for Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold as midfield partner for Declan Rice. This allowed him to field his dream attack of Bukayo Saka, Jude Bellingham and Phil Foden in support of captain Harry Kane.

England controlled possession from the opening minutes which was no problem for Serbia who were content with that as long as they could control their own penalty box. This strategy was undermined in spectacular fashion in the 13th minute.

Bellingham had attracted plenty of early attention from Serb boots on the ground but they were unprepared for his power in the air. Kyle Walker’s perfectly-judged pass inside the fullback provided Saka with the opportunity to cross to the far post where the Real Madrid 20-year-old dived forward fearlessly to head home.

England survived one first-half scare when defensive confusion on the left provided Mitrovic with a shooting chance. The former Fulham leader was irritated with himself for shooting wide of Jordan’s Pickford left-hand post. Similarly England might have been disappointed at failing to capitalise further on Saka’s right-wing pace.

Change of pace

Serbia abandoned their containment strategy in the closing stages of the first half and put England under serious pressure in the opening 20 minutes of the second half. Fortunately for England their final passes were poor though Pickford had to spring nimbly into action to fist a drive on the turn from Dusan Vlahovic over the bar.

Moments earlier Kane had headed a cross against the bar before England, with the added physical grit of substitutes Conor Gallagher and Jarrod Bowen, saw it through.

England may have hoped that lining up to God Save the King for the first time in 74 years might have brought them some luck. On the other hand, the last tournament occasion was the 1950 World Cup. That one did not end well.

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