ENGLAND EDGE LEICESTER TESTER
The Three Lions avoided a first ever run of four straight defeats by beating Switzerland at Leicester’s King Power Stadium. Manchester United striker Marcus Rashford scored his second goal in two games, as England won a match devoid of any real quality.
Gareth Southgate made wholesale changes for England’s first visit to Leicester in fifteen years. Bit-part players Jack Butland, James Tarkowski and Trent Alexander-Arnold all started for England – captained by Tottenham Hotspur’s Eric Dier. Switzerland, in fine form after their stunning 6-0 Nations League defeat of Iceland, changed their formation from their usual 4-2-3-1 to match England’s formation of 3-5-2. Their starters included experienced Arsenal duo Granit Xhaka and Stephen Lichtsteiner, Liverpool’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Newcastle United’s summer acquisition Fabian Schär. The match celebrated the 25th anniversary of anti-racism organisation ‘Kick It Out’.
The home team, in their familiar white and navy kit, started the match in nervy fashion. The starting eleven included Fabian Delph and Ruben Loftus-Cheek in midfield. They have played just fifteen minutes of club football between them this season. Jack Butland nearly scored an own-goal early on, before James Tarkowski dawdled on the ball at the back. He was so nearly punished. Switzerland quickly nabbed the ball, before sliding Shaqiri in on goal. The former Stoke City star bent the ball against the post. England survived a fourth minute scare.
Southgate’s side earned their first chance from a freekick. A brilliant turn of pace from 20-year-old Marcus Rashford helped him get away from Schär. He earned a freekick, from which Alexander-Arnold’s delivery was nodded narrowly wide by a stooping Eric Dier. Switzerland were next to trouble their opponents. Striker Mario Gavranović benefitted from a few kind bounces to get away from Tarkowski and Kyle Walker, only to be denied by a close-range save from Butland. From the resulting corner, wide man Ricardo Rodríguez turned inside Danny Welbeck much too easily, before he too was denied by Jack Butland with a low drilled strike. Danny Rose came steaming in to sting the gloves of goalkeeper Yann Sommer from Rashford’s cross, as England searched for a late first-half goal. They never found it. At the break, it was 0-0.
The players and manager were keen to discuss their fiery half-time team-talk, during the post-match interviews. It certainly worked, as England took the lead less than ten minutes after the restart. Danny Rose’s corner was delivered much too deep for anyone to attack, and so fullback-turned-centre-half Walker picked up the ball. He instantly did what Rose couldn’t, crossing perfectly into the area. As Arsenal’s Welbeck attacked it, no-one followed Marcus Rashford. When Welbeck failed to make contact, Rashford applied a simply volleyed finish to nutmeg keeper Sommer. The King Power Stadium roared a cheer of utter relief. England’s fans and players celebrated a barely deserved lead. Marcus Rashford was making himself known. ‘No Sterling? No problem’.
The England manager is savvy. He was fully aware England fans in Leicester would want to see their heroes of the World Cup. So, with half-an-hour to play, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, James Tarkowski and Danny Welbeck were replaced by Jesse Lingard, John Stones and Harry Kane. The goal-scorers against Panama were on. Stones was instantly on to make an impact. As Schär crossed well, Shaqiri stopped the ball and volleyed on goal. What sent the ball sailing over the bar was a courageous diving block from Stones. He’d saved his team.
Minutes later, Eric Dier was given the time and space to take on a long-range shot but could only blaze over the bar. Southgate’s final subs came on. Kieran Trippier and Jordan Henderson came on to steady the ship and, at full-back, Leicester City’s very own Ben Chilwell was introduced too. He became the 1235th man to represent England.
The match petered out into England walking their way to fulltime. The game had been about putting a winning feeling back into the side after three straight defeats. The victory was never certain, of course, as England’s opponents were ranked eighth in the world. Gareth Southgate will feel more upbeat now than he did after England’s 2-1 defeat to Spain at Wembley. The Spanish went on to play Croatia, in what was the World Cup finalists’ Nations League curtain-raiser. Spain won 6-0. But England must focus on themselves. They saw off Switzerland at Leicester, by one goal to nil.