LONDON: England may be on the verge of making history but Theo Walcott knows a perfect qualifying campaign will count for nothing if they flop at another major tournament next year.
Roy Hodgson’s side made it nine wins from nine on Friday night when they defeated Estonia 2-0 thanks to goals from Walcott and Raheem Sterling.
Few would have thought England would go on a 13-match unbeaten streak when they returned home from a dismal showing in Brazil.
England were condemned to their fastest ever World Cup exit after they lost to Italy and Uruguay before drawing their final group game against Costa Rica.
If England beat Lithuania on Monday, it will be the first time they have gone through qualification – in its current format – without dropping a point.
That may sound good, but Walcott is well aware that England’s progress will be judged on their performances at Euro 2016 next summer.
“We have to be proud of ourselves,” the Arsenal forward said.
“Having nine wins after the disappointment from the World Cup and bouncing back the way the players have done – the backroom staff have changed things and things are working for us. This team is definitely hungry and eager to do well.
“We want to make it 10 on Monday night. It is a nice little thing to have – we want to win every game but we will be more tested in these friendlies coming up (against France and Spain next month) and everyone wants to win competitions and make this country proud.
“There are some young, eager faces in that dressing room who are keen to do well but we are only going to be judged when it comes to tournament football.”
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alcott latched on to a pass from Ross Barkley and neatly guided the ball past the Estonia goalkeeper in the 45th minute to score just his second England goal at Wembley.
As Hodgson said on the eve of the match, Walcott has had a stop-start international career.
The former Southampton man’s England career spans almost a decade, but he has scored just eight goals in 42 appearances. Three of those came seven years ago on that memorable night in Zagreb when he became the youngest England player to score a hat-tick at 19 years and 177 days old.
Stuff of dreams
Walcott had to wait four years for his next England goal – at Euro 2012 – and his most recent strikes before Friday came against Scotland and San Marino.
“It’s a dream come true to score for your country,” Walcott said.
“I’d like to score more goals, but the most important thing I want to play for this team and for us to do well.”
With top seeding and qualification as group winners confirmed, Hodgson has decided he can do without Wayne Rooney, Michael Carrick, Joe Hart, Gary Cahill and James Milner, who have all been sent back to their clubs to recuperate.
An inexperienced party of 20 – the average number of caps per player in the squad is 12 – will travel to Lithuania on Sunday to prepare for Monday’s final qualifier.
Three years after winning his first cap, Jack Butland will start in goal. Danny Ings could make his debut while Dele Alli, who came off the bench in the dying minutes of the Estonia game, may make his first start.
With Rooney, Cahill and Hart out of the squad, the captain’s armband is up for grabs, too.
With a Euro 2016 seeding now in the bag, there is even less pressure on England as they prepare to play a nation ranked 116th in the world.
“We were probably a bit unlucky to score no more than two goals against Estonia, but the most important thing is that we got the win,” Hodgson said.
“It’s important to be seeded for the European Championship.”