Deputy Strikers Hand San Marino Customary Drubbing

Getty Images/Adrian Dennis

England 5-0 San Marino

  • There was a debut goal for Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins and a brace from Dominic Calvert-Lewin as England put five past perennial underdogs San Marino.
  • James Ward-Prowse and Raheem Sterling also found the net as England started 2021 as they mean to go on.

Nothing is a formality in football — not even when facing San Marino. England found that out in infamous fashion when they conceded to the minnows after a mere 8.3 seconds back in 1993. At Wembley 28 years later, there was no such scare. Not even the suggestion of the possibility of a scare.

50-year-old Gareth Southgate on the night became the first man in history to earn 50 England caps as a player and to manage England 50 times as well. His team — a halfway house between key and fringe players — romped to victory over the lowest-ranked nation in the world. Anything less would have been inadequate.

Ollie Watkins told EnglandFootball.org this week that it “would be the dream to make my debut” over these internationals. He added that he’d be “delighted” if it happened. He will have been ecstatic then that he was able to crown off his debut, from the bench, with England’s fifth and final goal on a routine night at Wembley.

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The Aston Villa striker buried the ball into the bottom corner towards the end of the second half. By then, San Marino had retreated back so far that repeating the attacking invention of the first period was always going to become tricky for England.

The night got off to a fast start chances-wise, but a slow start in terms of goals. It took a couple of point-blank misses from Harry Kane’s trusted deputy Dominic Calvert-Lewin as well as from captain-on-the-night Raheem Sterling before the Three Lions’ first, second and third goals flew past the otherwise very impressive Sammarinese goalkeeper Elia Benedettini.

The first went to James Ward-Prowse — swept into the corner with the kind of contact on the ball that has become his trademark. His first for the national team was only made possible by the movement and intent from Chelsea duo Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount. Soon after, Dominic Calvert-Lewin was on the scoresheet. Reece James’ inch-perfect flighted cross was nodded home with ease.

Raheem Sterling struck the third having created the chance for himself with that gorgeous and effortless ability to drop his shoulder and beat his man. San Marino were yet to show they could be defensively astute — not that it’s something they’re renowned for being. Yet after the interval, when livewires Mount and Sterling were subbed off to give others some much-needed game-time, the visitors looked more solid and largely nullified England’s threat.

England struggled to find gaps in what was by now a rather stodgy display. From left to right the ball went, and then back to the left again. Rarely did Kalvin Phillips, Kieran Trippier or Ben Chilwell look for forward passing options — and rarely were there any. On his England return, Jesse Lingard was energetic throughout. Desperate for a goal that never came despite a few valiant efforts, the eventual player-of-the-match did set up Calvert-Lewin for his second, squaring the ball to the Everton forward. Calvert-Lewin obliged, but frankly couldn’t have missed.

The moment of the night came courtesy of the scorer of the brace departing, though. His replacement Ollie Watkins was facing Basingstoke Town while at Weston-super-Mare six years ago. He capped off that “dream” England debut he was so longing for with a nicely taken goal which nestled into the inside netting.

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There were sparks of grace and guile about substitutes Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham late on. Bellingham nearly scored a bicycle kick as the game aged. But while the acrobatics were a little rusty this time, Southgate will have been a proud onlooker as he watched a 17-year-old even attempt such a thing at Wembley. His popularity has understandably faltered since Russia, but the progress England have made in the years since Southgate’s first match in charge against Malta nearly five years ago is tangible.

His opposite number — San Marino’s Franco Varrella — spoke with EnglandFootball.org post-match about how his side made life increasingly hard for England as the game wore on. He said: “In the second half, I think that we played better in managing the space and avoiding [being] attracted to the ball possession of the very skilled English players. But we also have to consider that [Southgate] substituted two midfielders during half-time [Mount and Sterling], and both were very skilled. Maybe England suffered something [because of] that. I think that in the second half, we covered better the spaces on the field.”

To his credit, for large parts of this game captain Mirko Palazzi had marshalled his side’s disciplined defence structure well. There were none of the needlessly conceded penalties or naïve yellow cards that Roy Hodgson’s England became used to when they faced these opponents four times between 2012 and 2015.

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But the microstate still couldn’t prevent England from cruising past them comfortably. The stats say there are no easier games in international football. England, on the whole, did make it look easy. No doubt Harry Kane will have been licking his lips on the bench as he chases down Wayne Rooney’s goalscoring record. He’s still a way off yet, but this was the kind of night strikers dream of. For Calvert-Lewin and Watkins, it was a job well done as the Tottenham man’s deputies.

Calvert-Lewin was hungry for goals, and perhaps snatched at a few chances. He told EnglandFootball.org that he was “very happy” to find the back of the net twice, and that “that’s what I set out to do when I stepped on the pitch. I knew I’d get chances.” He did, and, on two occasions, he duly took them. Finally a reliable understudy to Kane, who was rightly rested here.

Looking ahead in this international break, Albania in Tirana and then Poland back at Wembley will pose different sorts of challenges now. The sorts of challenges tournaments might pose. England’s task on the night was to win their first World Cup qualifier by negotiating the worst-ranked side on the planet. Could they have scored more? Yes. But the game was handsomely won and the points are in the bag. The kind of fixture that club superfans use as ammunition against international football. What does anyone learn from this? In the end, it was all just a bit too easy.

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