WEMBLEY: Russia and the World Cup finals are beckoning for England at the halfway stage of the qualifying competition as they claimed a 2-0 win over an unambitious Lithuania for the Group F leaders’ fourth win in five games.
Manager Gareth Southgate was pleased with the result but knew that the performance left plenty of room for improvement, particularly after the promising display in defeat in Germany.
Southgate had experimented with a three-man defence in Dortmund but, for the serious business of World Cup qualifying points, he reverted to the security of 4-2-3-1.
This was not a surprise. The one minor intrigue in his team was the selection of Sunderland’s veteran striker Jermain Defoe for the first time in four years in place of Jamie Vardy as lone striker in the continuing injury absence of Harry Kane. Raheem Sterling, recovered from a slight injury, was also recalled against a team ranked 107th in the world.
The capital’s first major sporting event since Wednesday’s terrorist attack on Westminster was attended by Sadiq Khan, the Mayor of London, along with government and senior police representatives. A wreath was laid and a minute’s silence held for the victims.
England did not make an impressive start but after 20 minutes Sterling and Defoe justified their selections. The Manchester City winger ran at the Lithuania defence and pulled back the ball for Defoe to score his 20th goal for his country.
Lithuania had never scored against England but they should have put that right just before half-time. Nerijus Valskis, well offside unnoticed by the assistant, headed over Joe Hart and Jones Stones scrambled back to clear off the line.
Ahead of the match Southgate had invited England’s Australian rugby coach, Eddie Jones, to give his players a motivational speech.
Jones recently led his own England team on a world-equalling run of 18 victories in succession. Southgate will not emulate that but Defoe’s goal at least launched towards a solid record of three wins and two draws in five matches since he succeeded Sam Allardyce last September.
England failed to make a further impression at the start of the second half so Southgate brought on Leicester’s Jamie Vardy for Defoe and Rashford for Sterling to step up the pressure. The decision was rewarded quickly when Vardy converted an assist from Liverpool’s Adam Lallana.