VERY DEAD RUBBER
England concluded their unbeaten journey through Group F with victory in Vilnius. There were debuts for Harrys Maguire and Winks, but it was Harry Kane that sealed the points with a first-half penalty.
As was suspected, Jack Butland was handed a chance to impress as he was named ahead of Joe Hart. Gareth Southgate used this free tournament preparer as a chance to experiment. This saw a back-three include Leicester City’s Harry Maguire – and Aaron Cresswell line-up opposite Kieran Trippier at wing-back. Harry Winks and Dele Alli came in as England trialled a 3-4-3 formation.
Lithuanian midfielder Fiodor Černych blazed a long-range shot over in the opening exchanges, as England looked to gain some sort of momentum in rainy Vilnius. It was from a Harry Winks cross that big centre-back Harry Maguire was handed a debut chance, but the Leicester man didn’t connect as he would have liked, and the ball bounced wide. England’s Thursday match-winner, and, again, captain, Harry Kane flashed a shot wide, before Lithuania had the best chance of the match yet. A wicked cross into the box looked too far behind striker Darvydas Šernas for him to make anything of it, but the former Ross Country man produced a well-improvised flick that scared Butland – flying into the side-netting. A Cresswell free-kick then brought about some questionable Lithuanian defending, before defender Michael Keane flashed a front-on volley narrowly wide of Ernestas Šetkus’ goal.
The pivotal moment of the first period came as Jordan Henderson nodded the ball down for Tottenham’s Dele Alli inside the box. Former Zenit St. Petersburg youth player Ovidijus Verbickas had to make a challenge on Alli, but it was a clumsy one, which saw the referee award England a penalty. Harry Kane was the obvious choice to be take it, and showcased utter precision as he crashed his low penalty off of the post and in. Gareth Southgate’s men celebrated a maybe belated, but overall deserved, lead.
Impressive Lithuanian defending denied Spurs duo Alli and Kane from close range as England pushed for an immediate second. The best moment of a quiet night for Marcus Rashford saw the Manchester United youngster dance past three defenders before being denied a goal by keeper, Šetkus. Rashford was denied a faint claim for a penalty a little later but, as soon as that had died down, England survived yet another unnecessary defensive scare as Černych fired a bouncing volley inches wide. At the break, the group-winners were a goal up.
Lithuania’s number ten Šernas repeated his side’s start to the first period by firing over from an excellent position inside two minutes of the restart. England then started to dominate once more, and enjoyed arguably their best period of the match. A Rashford cross was well pushed ‘clear’ by the goalkeeper, but debutant Harry Winks was eager to keep the attack motoring. He fired against an opponent before lacing the ball towards goal at the second attempt. Only a fantastic acrobatic save denied him a deserved debut goal.
The Three Lions then almost scored an embarrassing own-goal to put minnows Lithuania level. However, Jack Butland showed why he is pushing Joe Hart all the way for the number one spot with an outstanding save from a goal-bound Michael Keane stab. Šernas missed wildly again, as England moved into utter mediocrity. Full-back Aaron Cresswell nearly headed England’s second goal of the night but for more acrobatics from a now on-form Ernestas Šetkus. Alli and Rashford made way for Jesse Lingard and Daniel Sturridge – favourites at the beginning of Gareth Southgate’s managerial reign. The Liverpool forward bought a well-worked attack to an end with a desperately rusty shot, before Lithuania piped up again – substitute Deivydas Matulevičius volleying right into Jack Butland’s grateful arms. A Lithuanian man blocked a certain goal from Sturridge late on, before the two sides were put out of their misery.
England had ‘enjoyed’ seventy-one percent of possession, without ever really enjoying it. The Three Lions concluded their campaign by extending their unbeaten qualification run to a world record thirty-nine games. The last time they lost a qualifier was against Ukraine in 2009 having already sealed their place at South Africa 2010. Since then, England have had five managers, and have scored one hundred goals in qualifiers – conceding just fifteen. Gareth Southgate has led his nation to the top of Group F, but there is still a whole lot of work to be done – shown by the full-time scoreline of Lithuania 0-1 England.
Elsewhere, Scotland missed out on a place in next year’s finals, as an agonising 2-2 draw in Slovenia saw Slovakia finish second.