Can Jesse Lingard be England's World Cup X-factor?
Jesse Lingard (AP)
Moscow - Jesse Lingard has earned himself a reputation as a man for the big occasion at Manchester United. Now he could be England's X-factor at the World Cup.
The tournament in Russia has showcased the best and worst of Lingard - a clutch of missed chances in England's opening win against Tunisia before an outstanding 20-metre curling effort in the 6-1 Panama rout.
Now he is expected to face Sweden in Saturday's quarter-final in Samara.
READ: Ibrahimovic believes Sweden can beat England
Gareth Southgate's team have scored nine goals in Russia so far but just two of them have been from open play, and one of those was a fortunate deflection when a Ruben Loftus-Cheek long-range shot looped in off Harry Kane's heel.
Lingard, for so long a fringe player for United and England, does not have the profile of a Kane or even Manchester City's Raheem Sterling, who came to Russia following an outstanding season for the Premier League champions.
Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly Lingard provides and he has a frustrating tendency to go missing for periods. But the 25-year-old has the knack of coming up with something special when it really counts.
He volleyed an extra-time winner against Crystal Palace to clinch the FA Cup in 2016 during Louis van Gaal's final game in charge and the following season he scored in the League Cup final win.
Former Manchester United captain Michael Carrick, who has just joined the club's coaching staff, says Lingard's best attribute is his movement.
"He moves off the ball very well. It's something that sounds quite simple, but it's difficult to defend against," he told United's website.
"He senses where the space is and how to use it. I wouldn't necessarily say he's a dribbler with skills and tricks but he's dynamic.
"How he plays, he is unique in some ways. You don't see so much of that in the game as everyone wants to get on the ball and do something on the ball. Off the ball, he's very effective."
An FA Youth Cup winner in 2011, the livewire forward who plays with a smile on his face had to bide his time before making his name at his boyhood club, farmed out for multiple loan spells before he made his full debut at Old Trafford in August 2014.
Lingard, who admires Spain's Andres Iniesta, rose through the ranks at United when Ryan Giggs, Rio Ferdinand and Wayne Rooney were still at the club, but it was Paul Scholes whom Lingard looked up to most.
Last season was a breakthrough campaign for Lingard, who scored 13 goals for United, including some spectacular solo efforts.
"Whatever I got I had to make sure I made the most of it," Lingard told reporters on Sunday. "This season I got a lot of game time, scored a lot of goals, got a lot of assists and as soon as you do that England will come calling."
He said Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho had been a key factor in his success.
"He's been great with me," Lingard said. "He's put that trust and faith in me to play me in big matches week in, week out. It was up to me to repay that faith by playing well and putting in the performances. He's played a massive part in my development and I can only thank him for that."
Lingard, who signed a new four-year contract at Old Trafford last year, is also known as a prolific user of social media, with four million followers on Instagram.
With a keen eye on his image, he has reportedly applied for four trademarks with the UK Intellectual Property Office, three featuring his nickname "JLingz" and another featuring the image of his two-handed goal celebration.
Lingard is a man who clearly knows his own worth. Southgate appears to agree with his assessment.