VETERANS ENSURE ENGLAND TAKE CONTROL
England solidified their spot at the top of Group F with a straightforward, yet laboured, victory over Lithuania. Thirty-four-year-old Jermain Defoe and thirty-year-old Jamie Vardy scored their twentieth and sixth international goals as Gareth Southgate’s men became the last team left in Europe still yet to concede en route to the finals.
Joe Hart captained England in Gareth Southgate’s first match at Wembley as permanent manager. John Stones paired up with the re-called Michael Keane to make up England youngest ever centre-back pairing. Southgate handed international football returns to Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jermain Defoe, first team players at Arsenal and Sunderland this season. Raheem Sterling was the only other player in the line-up not to start in Dortmund on Wednesday. Lithuania’s starting eleven had only eighteen international goals between them, eight of them scored by Fiodor Černych. The winger has more goals in this campaign than any England player.
The pace at the beginning was slow and cagey. The eighty-thousand fans inside Wembley stadium were kept waiting, but when the first chance came, it fell to the man they would have wanted it to. Adam Lallana tucked the ball inside for goal-hungry Jermain Defoe. The Sunderland man is an outsider in the race for the Golden Boot this season, and his first international appearance since November 2013 brought him an early chance. The striker fell to the ground, scraping the ball goal-bound. Goalkeeper Ernestas Šetkus was able to save. Minutes later the forward was on the scoresheet. Raheem Sterling darted goal-side, and could cross for Defoe. The forward needed just one touch to pass the ball into the roof of the net. It was Jermain Defoe’s first England goal since he grabbed a brace in an 8-0 win in San Marino, and his first at Wembley since a hat-trick against Bulgaria.
Sterling, Defoe and Ryan Bertrand all missed shots before Lithuania had their first chance of the match. A long header forward left midfielder Vykintas Slivka one-on-one with Joe Hart. The player, miles offside, was allowed to play on, and headered past a flapping Hart. Manchester City’s John Stones rushed back, and a goal-line clearance denied the visitors an equaliser. The whistle blew and at the break it was 1-0 to the Three Lions.
Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli both missed efforts close in, before Lithuania’s Slivka tested Hart from Černych’s pull-back. The final chance before the first substitution saw Oxlade-Chamberlain sting the hands of keeper Šetkus from range. Wembley’s attendees applauded the efforts of goal-scorer and goal-maker Defoe and Sterling, as they departed for strikers Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford. The Manchester United forward was on to make his eighth appearance for his country; he is still only nineteen years of age. Lithuania continued to find pockets of undefended space, and midfielder Artūras Žulpa, of Kazakh club FC Tobol, volleyed high and wide from outside the box.
In the sixty-sixth minute of the match, the eight men behind the ball for the visitors all failed to pick up Adam Lallana on the edge of the box. Kyle Walker slid the ball into his feet; Lallana let the ball hit his foot, and run on through to unmarked and just-onside Jamie Vardy. The Leicester City forward scored his sixth goal in his last twelve internationals, slotting the ball over the leg of Ernestas Šetkus and into the net.
England continued to find space in the Lithuanian half. Marcus Rashford – creative and positive from his entrance to the end – played a silky nutmeg through one helpless defender, before passing another and firing wide. Oxlade-Chamberlain then found Walker on the right-wing. He cut inside and crossed for the onrushing Dele Alli. Tottenham’s man of the moment turned and shot but, tight for space, the keeper was able to gather well. Rashford continued to excite the Wembley crowd, playing in Vardy with a brilliant long ball. The forward saw the keeper approaching, but his lob was too powerful, and the ball sailed over. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain then hit a volley right into Šetkus’ gut, before Michael Keane and John Stones both showed moments of quality with important slide tackles. Dele Alli had one final chance in the air, but his glancing header was just a little too deft. The Three Lions seemed happy enough with two and though the crowd may have longed for more, they weren’t going to get it. Thanks to striker Defoe and Vardy of Sunderland and Leicester, it ended England 2-0 Lithuania.
Elsewhere in the group, Scotland, under pressure according to manager Gordon Strachan, won late on against Slovenia. Malta and Slovakia both had a man sent off, but the latter recovered from conceding an unlikely equaliser, to win comfortably – 3-1. England lead the group, four points ahead of second- placed Slovakia; Lithuania have dropped down to fifth.