After an impressive season so far with Everton, Ross Barkley put in a dynamic display for England on Friday to suggest he is finding his feet at international level.
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ENGLAND will fly out to Lithuania for Monday's final Group E fixture hoping to achieve a perfect ten of qualifying wins, yet it was a different kind of number ten who dominated the after-match conversation at Wembley on Friday evening.
Ross Barkley, the young Everton midfielder, was named man of the match on his first Wembley start. That accolade followed an impressively imaginative display in the No10 role as England beat Estonia 2-0 to maintain the only 100% record in UEFA EURO 2016 qualifying.
The highlight of his performance was undoubtedly the pass of the match that he produced to create England's breakthrough goal, scored by Theo Walcott moments before half-time. The 21-year-old Liverpudlian guided the ball through the legs of Estonia's Karol Mets and across the penalty box on a diagonal trajectory to meet Walcott's run behind the defence.
It was a piece of skill to illuminate any match and, not surprisingly, the Arsenal forward was quick to praise Barkley afterwards. "Ross played with a lot of freedom tonight – you could sense his class with the ball and the manager has given him that role and he has taken it with both hands," said Walcott. "That pass [is something] not many players tend to see but he spotted it fantastically well. And it was not just that but his overall game, keeping the ball, even getting back into position when needed; it was a perfect role tonight."
There was more too, as Barkley showed that rare ability among England players to pick up a ball and burst past defenders. Wayne Rooney did it as a teenager at UEFA EURO 2004, though pundits are more likely to draw comparisons with Paul Gascoigne. Barkley, if still learning, appears to have a similar gift given the way on two separate occasions in the second half he swerved between two blue shirts with the power and skill of a slalom skier. Each time he nearly capped the moment with a goal: the first shot flashed wide, the second was saved.
"The keeper did well to be fair," said Barkley. "I connected with it really well and perhaps should have kept it low but the keeper made a great save. I was disappointed not to get on the scoresheet but the main thing was for us to win the game and maintain our unbeaten run in the group. [And] I got an assist so I am happy with that."
Encouragingly for his England manager, Roy Hodgson, Barkley's display underlined the sense of a player having found a new level this season, after some ups and downs in the past couple of years. After scoring seven league goals for Everton in 2013/14 he shone on his first England start in the FIFA World Cup warm-up fixture against Ecuador in Miami and played in all three matches in Brazil.
Last season, however, his confidence slipped as Everton's fortunes dipped and there were just two goals from the 21-year-old. Yet he has taken another step forward this term. He hit a superb goal on the opening day for Everton and has added three more already – one of them his first in an England shirt against San Marino last month – as well as showing better decision-making when he has the ball at those quick feet. As a consequence, he is now eager to display his ability more consistently in an England shirt.
"Yes, I really feel an important part of this squad and game by game am hoping to stamp my authority on the pitch," he said. "I'm feeling confident and have been playing well at club level and have taken my form into the game today." It was just one game, but it certainly augurs well for Hodgson's England.