England progress in Qatar, and with some much-needed signs of progressive football from Gareth Southgate’s side.
he returning Marcus Rashford led a rout of Wales that sets up a Sunday showdown with Senegal and breathes new impetus into their World Cup quest.
On a night when Chesney Hawkes rolled back the years with a guest appearance, Rashford was by no means the one and only impressing here.
Phil Foden, another of the four changes as Southgate shuffled his side, was also on target at the Ahmad bin Ali stadium.
This is described by Fifa as a place “where desert stories unfold” — and the tale of this 90 minutes was of an England revival amid the dust and dunes north of Doha.
It took until the second half and Rashford’s thunderous kick to smash Wales’ resistance.
Here was another story unfolding. Rashford’s contribution for club and country has been questioned.
But his two goals last night helped send England through as group winners for the first time since 2006, and only the second time since 1990.
From here, though, danger awaits at every turn.
In Sunday’s last-16 clash against Senegal, the path lies blocked by Chelsea pair Kalidou Koulibaly and Edouard Mendy. Even without Idrissa Gueye, who is suspended, Ismaila Sarr and Iliman Ndiaye have the creative qualities to unsettle Southgate’s side.
Out of Africa, the threats loom large from the Lions of Teranga — even before England fans dare to contemplate a possible Quarter-Final with France.
For Wales, they return home from their first World Cup in 64 years filled with regrets.
After holding the US in their opening game, that late, late defeat to Iran last Friday proved so costly.
Their struggles were epitomised by Gareth Bale, anonymous last night on what could be his final appearance for his beloved country.
For England fans, it was an altogether more encouraging evening after their World Cup quest had stalled against the US, even if it took 50 minutes.
The best chance of a poor first half had fallen to Rashford.
It came early as Declan Rice won the ball and Harry Kane looked for the run of Rashford with a perfectly timed pass. Danny Ward had read the danger, racing out to block.
In the opening half, England had struggled to find a way through Wales’ 4-2-3-1 formation. They were predictable, Wales reading their intention each time and flying into tackles, even after the loss of Nico Williams, rightly taken off after catching Rashford’s shot full in the face.
Wales’ only chance of note in that first half fell to Joe Allen.
With England expecting a long throw, Connor Roberts, Williams’ replacement, went short but Allen sliced his effort over.
Bale was pulled at the break and, as one No.11 walked off, his opposite number in white stepped up.
It began with Foden on the charge again, easing past Roberts, before Joe Rodon’s block saw a foul awarded.
A free-kick in a similar position in the first half had been well worked, almost finding Harry Maguire.
This time six England players stood over the ball, deliberating the plan of attack.
One by one they stepped away, leaving it for Rashford, who trained his eyes on goal.
His effort was packed with pace and placement, with the ball disappearing past Ward in a blur.
As the England fans crowed ‘You’re going home in the morning’, the Welsh back line fell apart again 98 seconds later.
Ward attempted to play the ball out but Ben Davies was closed down by Rashford and Kane crossed, with Foden arriving at the back post to drive in.
Jordan Pickford saved well from Kieffer Moore’s deflected shot before England added a third.
Kalvin Phillips, one of several changes as Southgate’s thoughts turned to Sunday, sent Rashford racing down the right. So sharp, so focused, Rashford turned past Roberts and sent a shot arrowing through Ward’s legs.
As the England fans sang Jingle Bells, the sight of pantomime villain Fifa president Gianni Infantino on the big screen drew boos.
Rashford was twice denied his hat-trick by Ward as England pushed for more, with John Stones also going close at the death.
WALES: Ward, N Williams (Roberts, 36), B Davies (Morrell, 59), Mepham, Rodon, Allen (Colwill, 81), Ramsey, Ampadu, James (Wilson, 77), Bale (Johnson, 45) Moore
ENGLAND: Pickford, Walker (Alexander-Arnold, 57), Stones, Maguire, Shaw (Trippier, 65), Henderson, Rice (Phillips, 58), Bellingham, Foden, Rashford (Grealish, 76), Kane (Wilson 57)
Referee: Slavko Vincic (Slovenia)