Why Jude Bellingham is streets ahead of a young Wayne Rooney, writes OLIVER HOLT

Enough of the hand-wringing for a while. On the back of a 1-0 defeat to a Brazil team that featured two thirds of the best attacking front-line in world club football, many seem to have convinced themselves that England are saddled with a terrible manager, an awful defence, half a midfield and an attack that can’t function without Harry Kane. 

There is a riposte to all that and, with apologies for the simplicity of it, the riposte consists of two words: Jude Bellingham. 

Bellingham won’t win the European Championship on his own but England have got a hell of a lot of a better chance of doing it now that he is at the heart of the team. He didn’t have an outstanding game against Brazil but that was partly because Brazil kicked him out of it. 

That’s right: Brazil actually thought that there was an English player so valuable and so potentially destructive to their own hopes of success that they put a target on his back and spent much of the evening booting him up in the air. 

That felt like an inversion of the natural order. History reminds us that Pele was forcibly removed from the 1966 World Cup in this country by the repeated brutality of opponents that left him unable to produce the magic that lit up football for a generation with the Brazil side that won the tournament in 1958, 1962 and 1970. But this time, it was an Englishman that was the target. 

Jude Bellingham could be the man to finally lead England to Euros glory this summer

There was a period in the first half where Lucas Paqueta seemed to foul Bellingham every time he got the ball. Then Brazil shared the fouling duties around, as smart, cynical teams are wont to do. 

Not surprisingly, it limited Bellingham’s effectiveness. But it did not dim his light. Bellingham is still only 20 years old but he bestrides this England team like a colossus already. He glides and accelerates and powers through games as if he has a different gear to everyone else. 

Let’s say it again: he is only 20, but he is already a Rolls Royce of a midfielder. The phrase ‘generational talent’ is overused. I have heard it applied to Kai Havertz, who is a fine player but who doesn’t fit that description. Bellingham does fit it. Even on Saturday, even under the constraints in which he was forced to operate, there were moments where he made the spectator’s pulse quicken. 

This is a young man, let’s not forget, who is leading LaLiga’s scoring charts with the 16 goals he has scored playing in midfield. This is a young man who, in his first season at Real Madrid, has scored more goals so far this season than Robert Lewandowski, Alvaro Morata and Vinicius Jnr. 

This is a young man who has dominated the La Liga narrative this season and whose class has dominated Spanish football. In his first El Clasico, at the Montjuic Stadium earlier this season, he scored both Madrid’s goals against Barcelona including a last-gasp winner. This is a player who rises to the big occasion. 

And we should not downplay the fact that, injury permitting, fingers crossed, he will be lining up against Serbia when England play their first match of Euro 2024 in Gelsenkirchen on June 16. 

Gelsenkirchen was where one of the last of England’s great players, Wayne Rooney, was sent off during the 2006 World Cup during a quarter-final against Portugal and Bellingham’s recent red card for Madrid combined with the English talent for catastrophising has led to all manner of fretting about Bellingham being provoked into something unwise in Germany. 

Famous last words but Bellingham appears too smart to get sucked into that kind of trap. He might be a precocious talent but part of that involves having an old head on young shoulders. He knows – and Southgate knows – that the opposition will try to unsettle him during the Euros. He will be ready for that. 

I’m just looking forward to seeing him play. I’m looking forward to luxuriating in the fact that England will have one of the best talents at the tournament and that he will be determined to command the stage. I’m looking forward to seeing him demanding the ball, as he did against Brazil. 

I’m looking forward to the thrill of anticipation every time he gets it. It is always a thrill to be in the presence of greatness. Forget the fretting about where he plays and how England can best use him. 

Bellingham is so good he gives Southgate options. The manager could play Bellingham as a 10 and he’d be the best 10 we have or he could play him alongside Declan Rice and he’d be the best box-to-box midfielder we have. 

We just need to keep his metatarsals wrapped in cotton wool and swaddled in bubble-wrap.

Sport provides us with beautiful stories sometimes and even though there was a great poignancy to Sven-Goran Eriksson being granted his dying wish of managing Liverpool Football Club at the weekend, there was something wonderfully uplifting about seeing the former England boss leading out a Liverpool team ahead of the charity match against an Ajax XI on Saturday and lining up next to Steven Gerrard on the Anfield pitch. Congratulations to Liverpool and to all involved for arranging something that will live long in the memory of all who saw it.

As someone who thinks a physical ordeal begins about half way around a 5k Parkrun on a Saturday morning, I was filled with a mixture of awe and dread by the achievement of Jasmin Parris, the Scottish ultra-runner, who became the first woman to finish the notorious Barkley Marathons in Tennessee, USA, since it was extended to 100 miles in 1989. The annual race at Frozen Head State Park involves five loops of roughly 20 miles, with 60,000 ft of ascents and descents. Parris crossed the finish line on Friday with 99 seconds to spare before the 60-hour cut-off.

There was a lot of talk after the game on Saturday evening of just how much England miss Harry Kane when he is absent through injury. It was also instructive just how much they missed Kyle Walker when he went off with a hamstring issue midway through the first half. Walker’s pace, as well as his experience and overall excellence, has become incredibly important to Southgate’s side. It gets England out of trouble time and time again and intimidates even the fastest forwards. Without that pace, England’s defence looked exposed against Brazil.

I’m a big admirer of Ollie Watkins. It’s hard not to be. But my instinct is that if Ivan Toney performs well against Belgium at Wembley tonight, he will probably get the nod to go to Germany this summer as Harry Kane’s understudy. I’m still not sure that we realise quite how good Toney is. He is the closest thing we have got to Kane in terms of his ability to hold up the ball, his vision, his ability to create for others and his finishing.

 And then there’s the fact that he rarely misses from the penalty spot. He is not short of confidence, either. Playing in a major tournament is likely to motivate him rather than inhibit him. He may have had rather a chequered recent past but if Gareth Southgate picks him in the Euros squad, he will have earned it with his talent.

It was a treat to see Andy Murray playing so well in Miami last week. It felt like a beautiful symbol of his enduringly stubborn brilliance that he should come up against a top-30 player in Tomas Etcheverry, who beat him in straight sets at the Australian Open a couple of months ago, and avenge that defeat with a stunning victory. Murray still has greatness in him. It’s a privilege to watch it while we can. 

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