Bellingham's brilliance elevates England to title contender

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When England's crestfallen players trudged off the pitch after failing to overcome a pretty average Italy team in the Euro 2020 final last year, Gareth Southgate's detractors were already sharpening their knives.

Despite the obvious improvements under Southgate's tenure, critics argued that the mild-mannered, measured manager was simply too cautious in his team selection, and blamed England's inability to unlock the Azzurri defense on his reluctance to unleash the squad's young flair players.

Jude Bellingham (R) of Dortmund vies with Dennis Geiger of Hoffenheim during the German first division Bundesliga football match between TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund in Hoffenheim, Germany, Jan. 22, 2022. (Xinhua)

Jude Bellingham was one of the talented bench-warmers kicking his heels at Wembley that night. On Monday, the rising Borussia Dortmund star was named in Southgate's starting XI, and from the first whistle to the last looked as if he had been patrolling England's midfield for the past decade.

He oozed such class — albeit against a poor Iran side — that it is not far-fetched to suggest he transforms England from an outside bet for glory into a bona fide title contender in Qatar.

Bellingham completely ran the show in Monday's 6-2 rout, showcasing his full array of skills with composure that belies his 19 years — the imperious header to open the scoring, silky flicks and footwork, near-perfect possession retention (97 percent pass accuracy, according to the stats), eye-of-the-needle through-balls, roving runs and box-to-box energy. All of which combined to glue together an England team that has often flattered to deceive in recent years.

Perhaps, though, the most impressive part of Bellingham's game was his aggression. It's that rare mix of flair and steel that really elevates him above the game's other elite prospects.

His schooling in the rough-and-tumble of England's second-tier Championship with hometown club Birmingham City seems to have molded Bellingham in that regard. Just ask Wayne Rooney, who encountered Bellingham when he was player-manager at Derby County.

"He actually man-marked me during the game. I think he was about 16, maybe just 17, and what I really liked about him is every time I passed the ball off, he'd leave a stud in on me. And I remember thinking, 'he's got something about him'," Rooney told talkSPORT earlier this month.

Bellingham himself credits much earlier experiences for his brawniness — his police-sergeant father, Mark, liked to spend his off-duty hours scrapping on the muddy battlegrounds of English non-league soccer, and kid Jude was a keen observer on the sidelines.

"That non-league style of toughness and being gritty when you need to be... I do think that comes from watching my dad play — even though he never tackled!" Bellingham told The Guardian in 2020.

With major doubts still hanging over Southgate's defense, Bellingham's relish for a tackle should come in handy when England faces sterner tests later in the tournament.

No matter how far Bellingham takes England in Qatar, expect him to become next summer's big transfer story, with Dortmund primed to cash in on another astute investment.

The Bundesliga club has developed a knack for snapping up young prospects on the cheap, nurturing their talent and then selling them for a healthy profit.

Erling Haaland's 60-million-euro ($61 million) move to Manchester City was the latest example last summer, following similar big-money moves for Jadon Sancho (85 million euros to Manchester United) and Ousmane Dembele (140 million euros to Barcelona).

With over 100 Dortmund appearances to his name, Bellingham is on course to surpass those fees, with the likes of City, United, Liverpool and Real Madrid expected to vie for his signature.

Sums in the region of 150 million euros are already being mentioned. The further England progresses in Qatar, the more eye-watering that price will be.

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