LATE FLURRY PARDONS POOR PERFORMANCE
England slogged to victory in their first game of the season, winning 4-0 on a sweltering evening in Malta. Three goals in the final eight minutes gave the scoreline a healthier look, but the performance was far from sweet.
Gareth Southgate felt four defenders and two holding midfielders would be necessary, as England faced the Mediterranean heat – and minnows Malta. Joe Hart, given the vote of confidence by Southgate, started in goal, with Phil Jones and Ryan Bertrand, rewarded for great starts to the season, named in defence. Jake Livermore lined up alongside captain Jordan Henderson in defensive midfield, as England looked to play balls wide to Raheem Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, or to Harry Kane and Dele Alli further up the pitch. Malta’s eleven included a goalkeeper born in Kingston upon Thames, and a defender at Ebbsfleet United.
When the Three Lions kicked-off, they started speedily, and looked to find the net in the opening five minutes. Just a minute in, Raheem Sterling decided not to pull the trigger on a perfect chance. The ball was cleared and England would have to wait a little longer. It was as long a wait as two minutes until the next chance fell – Kyle Walker’s deflected cross landing right on the head of sole striker Harry Kane. The Tottenham Hotspur man firmly headed the ball on target, only for keeper Andrew Hogg push it away impressively. A slick move between three England players then ended with Dele Alli firing over with his back to goal, before the game fell dead for a distasteful amount of time. A disallowed Phil Jones goal on twenty minutes provided a highlight of a sort, but more of a lowlight in that it was unable to cause a change in the scoreline. At halftime, rather deservedly, it was Malta 0-0 England.
On came Marcus Rashford, for the disappointing Sterling, to inject some flair and creativity. However, five minutes into the second half, the first chance fell to Malta. A Joseph Zerafa ball was expertly taken into control by experienced striker André Schembri. The former Frankfurt striker spun away from the close attention of three England players, before firing just past Joe Hart’s anxiously-watched goal. England needed to turn up the gears. Just two minutes later, a Jake Livermore ball was headed away well by Malta. Dele Alli plucked the ball from the sky well, and sent his opponents the wrong way with a simple body-shift. When he saw that Harry Kane was being played onside by a defender on the goal line, he knew to slip the ball to his club teammate. Kane got his August form out of his mind with a simple first of September slap into the net. England, belatedly, took the lead in Ta’ Qali.
A Sam Magri shot flew narrowly wide for Malta, before Kane and Rashford took restless shots from range, which both needed dealing with smartly by Malta’s Hogg. The match fell dead but, to try and change that, England bought on strikers Jamie Vardy and Danny Welbeck. England reverted to almost a 4-2-4 formation. Jordan Henderson found Southampton full-back Ryan Bertrand, who shot precisely into the bottom corner from thirty-yards out. The goalkeeper was certainly not helped as it bounced before him, nevertheless Bertrand celebrated his first England goal. England had leeway at 2-0.
As the match entered stoppage-time, Jamie’s Vardy’s hunger to win the ball from a Malta defender paid off, and the Leicester City man found Harry Kane. Kane whipped a delicious ball into the box, which goalkeeper Hogg came to collect. But Danny Welbeck got there ahead of him to smartly lift the ball over and into the net. The Arsenal man has had such a wicked time with injuries, and celebrated his first England goal for two-and-a-half years with a beaming smile. His fifteenth for England was a classy one. Only a minute later, England made it two in two minutes, when Marcus Rashford played an inch-perfect pass from deep, over the Maltese defence and into the path of Kane. The Tottenham striker sorted his feet out, and capped off a Man of the Match performance with a thumping volley and his second of the night. England got going very late on, and won it, convincingly in the end, 4-0.
Elsewhere in Group F, Scotland kept alive their slim chances of claiming a play-off place with a 3-0 win in Lithuania, whilst Slovakia remained just two points behind England as a late Miha Mevlja own-goal saw of rivals Slovenia. The top two face one another at Wembley on Monday.