In a game preluded by clamour for Harry Kane to claim a starting berth, it was the effervescent attacking trio of Sterling, Welbeck and Rooney who stimulated what was a convincing victory as England beat Lithuania 4-0 under Wembley lights. Kane’s eventual introduction was indeed capped by a goal for the Tottenham striker, but by this point the damage had already been enacted by an assertive and untroubled England team.
Lithuania are one notch above the calibre of the archetypal European minnow, arriving in London as the kind of opponent that you would expect to yield a generic 2-0 win for England. Names such as Andriuskevicius and Matulevicius no doubt evinced all sorts of puns from hilarious folk throughout the country about the Lithuanians having big names, but the reality was that if Glen Johnson were Lithuanian, even he would make their squad. The Lithuanian line-up consisted of those who ply their trade in some of Europe’s less glamorous leagues, or, in the case of Marius Zaliukas at Rangers, some of Europe’s least glamorous leagues.
Despite vociferous cries for the inclusion of Harry Kane, Roy Hodgson acquiesced to the calling of the pipes in his selection of Danny boy; Welbeck and Wayne Rooney were reunited in a partnership that had proved fruitful in recent internationals. Joe Hart settled down between the posts for what would be a quiet night. Leighton Baines and Nathaniel Clyne have cemented their status as first-choice full-backs, with Phil Jones earning the centre-back slot next to Gary Cahill by process of elimination. The midfield of Michael Carrick, Fabian Delph and Jordan Henderson was full of legs; six, in fact. Raheem Sterling received the free role that his talent demands.
England imposed their dominance in the opening exchanges, Rooney’s one-on-one chance caressing the post rather than hitting the net. Two minutes later and the captain would deliver that blow. Welbeck’s magnificent nutmeg was followed by an unconvincing shot, parried by Arlauskis onto Rooney’s head. It was an easy finish for the striker, one that would encourage both the England fans and players. Intricate passing and fluid movement from England’s attacking players was abetted by the width and security provided by Baines and Clyne. The pace of Welbeck, Sterling and Clyne make them a video gamer’s dream, but a defender’s nightmare. Welbeck’s dash to the byline surprisingly produced an end product, a looping cross to the back post that Rooney looped in response against the far post. Kane might be the in-form striker in the Premier League, but Welbeck and Rooney were combining sweetly for England.
Danny Welbeck confidently dismantled the Lithuanian defence with his pace and movement, and constructed a compelling case to keep Harry Kane on the bench just a little bit longer.
After a lively start, the atmosphere in the crowd and England’s selection of passing began to form a drearily vicious circle; the insistence on sideways movement in front of a fragile Lithuanian defence reduced the Wembley attendance to quiet murmuring rather than impassioned shouting, making a 1-0 lead feel tense despite no manifest threat from the opposition. Half-chances were snatched at by England. Welbeck in particular seemed keen to force a penalty rather than a goal, his stock shimmy aiming to draw contact rather than a shot. Just as half-time was about to be stroked, England finally scored the reassuring second goal through a stooping header from Welbeck. Welbeck’s lightning reactions turned a nothing ball from Henderson into something, something that deflected off Kijankas and past the helpless Arkauskis. Harry who? Harry Kane, of course. But he would not be needed in a comfortable and thoroughly predictable first-half that saw England enter the dressing rooms with a two goal cushion.
England started the second half vigorously, with Arkauskis spectacularly arming over a half-volley from Delph. Much like Jeremy Clarkson to Ofcom, Welbeck was a relentless threat to the Lithuanian defence. His pace carved a hole in the opposition, affording him the chance to drive a shot to be comfortably dealt with by Arkauskis at his near post. Lithuania continued to offer nothing offensively and little defensively. The England midfield had time aplenty to manoeuvre the ball around, and on one such occasion unleashed Rooney down the right flank. Rooney’s cross was tucked home by an onrushing Sterling, ignored by the Lithuanian defence. Officially this was Sterling’s first international goal, but those of us who celebrated his effort in the World Cup will still vehemently refuse to acknowledge that statistic.
The nation’s new footballing darling, Harry Kane, was finally introduced around the 71 minute mark to rapturous applause. But then remember just how we fawned over Rickie Lambert when he was first welcomed into the England fold. 80 seconds later, and boom; the well-oiled goal machine continued to roll on. The irrepressible Sterling gave the ball a biblical dink to the far post, and Kane converted. Andy Townsend waxed lyrical on ITV about Harry Kane having that mythical ‘it’ that differentiates the best strikers from the rest. In this case ‘it’ was a generous allocation of space by the Lithuanians, and a tame attempt at goalkeeping. Nevertheless, the man made to wait over 71 minutes for his debut needed only a minute to grab a goal.
Sterling was flitting and buzzing around like a bee, causing problems with his agility. The bee also stung, receiving a yellow card for an over-exuberant attempt to continue his dribble on Andriuskevicius. Kane slotted comfortably into the side and the game sauntered to a conclusion with the England team camped inside the Lithuanian final third.
Five games in the European Championships’ qualifying campaign, five wins. Even the most cynical critic cannot ask for more than that. The various spectres of Kyle Walker, Chris Smalling and Rob Green on the bench serve as a reminder that tougher questions will be asked of the England squad as a whole, but in this game Roy Hodgson’s chosen team exhibited signs of growing chemistry and once more did what was necessary with some degree of flair. The promise of striking options of Rooney, Welbeck, Sterling, Sturridge and Kane in France in 2016 is tantalising. Hopefully this is just the first selection dilemma of many for Hodgson.
Here’s an essentially arbitrary allocation of 5s, 6s, 7s and 8s to England’s players.
Joe Hart, 6 – untested, kept a clean sheet.
Nathaniel Clyne, 6 – untested defensively, ventured forward with some success.
Leighton Baines, 6 – once again not at his sparkling best for England, he remains Hodgson’s pick of a plethora of left-backs, although Bertrand and Cresswell must be wondering what they have to do to even make the squad.
Gary Cahill, 6 – did not fall asleep.
Phil Jones, 6 – no calamitous errors.
Michael Carrick, 6 – strolled around with style and composure.
Fabian Delph, 6 – combative, but some lacklustre passing that will not suffice against better opposition.
Jordan Henderson, 6 – did set up Welbeck’s goal, but overall lacking in creative spark and forward thrust.
Raheem Sterling, 8 – direct, fast, took his goal well.
Danny Welbeck, 8 – direct, fast, took his goal with a mighty deflection.
Wayne Rooney, 7 – one goal, should have been three, heavily involved in the game by Rooney’s standards for England.
Harry Kane, 7 – he scored his inevitable goal.
Ross Barkley, 5 – oh yeah, he came on too.
Theo Walcott, 5 – had a shot from an offside position.
The Yorker’s Player of the Match: Danny Welbeck – confidently dismantled the Lithuanian defence with his pace and movement, and constructed a compelling case to keep Harry Kane on the bench just a little bit longer.
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