England had all but qualified for the elimination round before kickoff on Tuesday, but its final match of group play still teemed with pressure. The pressure to win, yes, and the pressure not to lose, of course, but more so the pressure to suggest that it was capable — after a dull performance in its last game — of a magical, majestic showing in this World Cup.
The first half Tuesday resembled England’s match four days prior — unappealing, ineffectual and, more to the point, goalless — as the Welsh sank back on defense, content to deter and deny instead of create and produce. Then, with so many red shirts cramming the box, came a marvelous free kick, and with it a goal — the first of three — that England so desperately needed.
By toppling Wales, England advanced to the knockout stages atop Group B, earning — in theory, at least — a more favorable draw in the elimination round. Its reward is a meeting with Senegal, the second-place finisher in Group A, and the avoidance of the Netherlands, which fashions itself a contender just as much as England does.
England, though, has a far better record recently in international tournaments than the Dutch, reaching the finals of last year’s European Championship and the semifinals of the World Cup in Russia in 2018. Its players and its manager, Gareth Southgate, are older and perhaps wiser, and he had a sense of what they were lacking in a stale showing Friday against the United States.
That scoreless draw compelled Southgate to add more attacking flavor into a lineup that lacked tempo and creativity. So in came Marcus Rashford and Phil Foden. They scored a minute apart early in the second half: the first on that splendid free kick and the second after a nifty cross from Harry Kane. Rashford added another in the 68th minute to dismiss Wales, which was appearing in its first World Cup since 1958, without a victory in Qatar.
Though England and Wales are both members of the United Kingdom, they compete as separate nations outside the Olympics. Their meeting Tuesday signified another touchstone moment in a rivalry, both sporting and cultural, that has spanned centuries, with England emerging victorious in matters of soccer — and, it seems, in matters of royalty, with the Prince of Wales expressing his support for the Three Lions.
For the occasion, there was red in the stands at Ahmed bin Ali Stadium, and there was red on the faces of England’s players, and there was red — so much red — in the box. Wales packed five, six, seven men in there at once, and though England dominated possession, Rashford managed its only shot on target in the first half. It was denied by goalkeeper Danny Ward, who kept the match scoreless, if only temporarily, before England showed its might again and again and again.