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Aimless England muddle through it, Northern Ireland show us how to do it Featured

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Published in England Premier League
Tuesday, 05 September 2017 07:24

Adam Hurrey searches for a Belfast grandparent as England show little reason to feel optimistic for the World Cup in 2018...

England sweat the small stuff against Slovakia

Another England game, another chance to gauge how highly the England team are thought of by the England fans. The empty seats (worsened by a ticket printing error that left a few thousand waiting outside after kick off) could be explained by the fact that qualifying campaigns do little to raise the national pulse, or simply that the prospect of Slovakia is never likely to fill Wembley.

Either way, sell-out crowds are one of our favourite national-team obsessions, along with that infernal armband and who takes the corners. However, for a good 40 minutes or so (or 40 years, depending on your perspective) this match suggested attention should be turned to the now quintessentially English inability to pass, control or otherwise keep possession of a football.

England permanently look like a team 1-0 down, such is their inherent impatience, and that’s precisely what they were within three minutes against a Slovakia side who could have ended the night top of the group. In the end, two moments of technical clarity from Eric Dier and Marcus Rashford dragged Gareth Southgate’s work-in-progress over the line.

The World Cup beckons, but who will take our corners in Russia?

 

¡Forward, Northern Ireland!

There is increasing talk of Michael O’Neill chancing his arm in the thankless day-to-day maelstrom of domestic football. That may well be where his ambitions lie, but it really does seem like the only way is down from here. After a feel-good Euro 2016 campaign that announced their return from the wilderness after 30 years, the Northern Irish look nailed on for a play-off spot in a bid to reach the World Cup for the first time since Mexico ‘86.

They’re also even better than the team who topped their Euros qualifying group. They have already matched their tally of 16 goals (in two fewer games) while shipping just two at the other end. At home – the bouncing Windsor Park – they have won four from four without conceding. “Those things," as O’Neill put it after the 2-0 win over the Czech Republic, “are huge feathers for us.”

Matters are helped by a curious Group C, in which Germany have rightly run away with it, ahead of Azerbaijan and the palest shadows of what only officially can be called Norway and the Czech Republic. In between – five points from the top, but nine clear of the rest – sit 37-year-old Aaron Hughes, the Evans brothers and Ballon d’Or contender Chris Brunt.

Any play-off draw is likely to be a solid test at the very least, but the momentum is with Northern Ireland.

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  • England hold Brazil in dire encounter

    International friendly, Wembley Stadium – England 0 Brazil 0

    England’s 2017 ultimately ended with two 0-0s against the world’s top two as they held Brazil just four days after shutting out Germany.

    An uninspiring affair against Brazil will have made for pleasant viewing for England head coach Gareth Southgate, who watched his side quell the visiting trio of Neymar, Gabriel Jesus and Philippe Coutinho.

    Brazil had a couple of chances, namely Coutinho’s low effort in the second half which was saved well by Joe Hart, but they hardly looked like the side who took 12 wins and lost just once in the South America qualifiers.
    Southgate will undoubtedly draw the positives from Tuesday’s draw, but there will be concern over the lack of attacking threat.

    March friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy will allow Southgate to address those issues, but for now it’s time to celebrate the mundanity that is holding Brazil to a 0-0 draw.
    TALKING POINT

    England’s solidity in defence. When you see Neymar, Jesus and Coutinho in the opposition’s line-up, you do not expect a quiet night. England’s back three of John Stones, Harry Maguire and Joe Gomez proved they could stem the attacking flair of their opponents. It wasn’t pretty viewing, but you would take a 0-0 if it were the World Cup finals, even if that does mean penalties…
    MAN OF THE MATCH

    Joe Gomez (England): What a full debut for the Liverpool defender, who started at centre-back alongside John Stones and Harry Maguire. His reading of the game was brilliant, and he put in a number of vital interceptions to keep Brazil at bay. Southgate warned his Young Lions not to go souvenir hunting when facing Neymar and co, but Gomez rarely looked fazed. He may have to check his back pocket tomorrow morning to make sure the £198m man isn't still in there.
    KEY MOMENTS

    13’ - SAVE! It looks like Alves is lining up to shoot once more from out wide, but the fizzed ball in finds the head of Jesus, but Hart dives to his left to save the attempt.

    47’ - SAVE! Closest we've come to a goal at Wembley! And it's Coutinho who almost sneaks in an opener for the visitors, but his low strike is saved well by Hart.
    77’ - OFF THE POST! Dier loses the ball in the middle of the park, and it's Fernandinho who storms down the pitch before unleashing a fierce low strike, but it clips the outside of the post.

    85’ - SAVE! Flowing Brazil move and it's a terrific touch from Paulinho to carry it into the area, but Hart stands tall and sees the Barcelona midfielder's effort cannon off his chest and out for a corner...
    PLAYER RATINGS

    England: Hart 7, Walker 7, Maguire 7, Stones 8, Gomez 8, Bertrand 6, Livermore 7, Dier 7, Loftus-Cheek 6, Vardy 6, Rashford 7. Subs: Lingard 6, Solanke 6, Abraham 6, Young N/A, Rose N/A

    Brazil: Allison 6, Alves 6, Marquinhos 6, Miranda 7, Marcelo 7, Casemiro 7, Paulinho 7, Renato Augusto 6, Coutinho 6, Jesus 6, Neymar 7. Subs: Fernandinho 7, Willian 6, Firmino 6

    KEY STATS

    England claimed back-to-back goalless draws for the first time since 1995.

  • Harry Kane's hot streak continues as England win in Lithuania

    LFF Stadium, World Cup qualifying Group F - Lithuania 0 England 1 (Kane pen 27')

    Harry Kane’s hot streak continued as he scored the winner in England’s 1-0 victory over Lithuania in their final qualifying match ahead of the World Cup in Russia.
    Having already won Group F after a 1-0 victory over Slovenia on Thursday, manager Gareth Southgate made seven changes to his team, handing Harry Winks and Harry Maguire debuts in a 3-4-3 formation for the match in Vilnius.

    In a disjointed performance, Dele Alli, back in the side after suspension, won a first-half penalty when he was felled by Ovidijus Verbackas. His Tottenham team-mate Kane duly dispatched the spot-kick for his 15th goal in his last 10 matches for club and country.

    Michael Keane had earlier gone close for the visitors, but in truth, England offered little in the way of clear-cut chances thereafter.

    Tottenham’s Winks was denied a goal on his debut when his shot was well saved by Ernestas Setkus, but it was Lithuania – who won only once in Group F – who threatened most; Jack Butland was forced into a good stop as Keane almost inadvertently sent the ball into his own net, while Deivydas Matulevicius spurned a late opportunity.
    Once again England did just enough to record the three points - they are now unbeaten in their last four campaigns in qualifying for major tournaments - but it was another unimaginative and unconvincing display from Southgate’s side.

    TALKING POINT

    3-4-3 isn't the answer for insipid England: Southgate opted for an experimental 3-4-3 formation, and while England’s front-three, Marcus Rashford, Alli and Kane, linked-up well, at times in the first half, the showing after the restart was incredibly flat and one-paced.

    There was at least some cause for optimism as the performance of debutant Winks in the centre of the park indicated the Spurs playmaker may have a role to play in Russia, while Harry Maguire, also making his debut, looked OK in defence.
    But all-in-all, it was simply not good enough. Southgate should probably go back to basics for the home friendlies against Brazil and Germany in November.

    MAN OF THE MATCH

    Marcus Rashford (England) - The Manchester United youngster was at nowhere near his brilliant best, but was probably England's stand-out player in the first half and looked most likely to make things happen.

    PLAYER RATINGS

    Lithuania: Setkus 7, Andriuskevicius 5, Klimavicius 5, Girdvainis 5, Borovskij 5, Zulpa 5, Slivka 5, Verbickas 4, Cernych 5, Novikovas 5, Sernas 6. Subs: Matulevicius 5,

    England: Butland 6, Keane 6, Maguire 7, Stones 6, Trippier 6, Winks 7, Henderson 5, Cresswell 7, Alli 7, Kane 7, Rashford 7. Subs: Sturridge 6, Lingard 6.

    KEY MOMENTS

    11’ - THE HOSTS SHOULD BE AHEAD! Sernas peels away from Maguire at the back post as a cross comes in, but somehow slices his first-time effort wide of the goal from inside the box. A let off for England!

    24’ - KEANE GOES CLOSE! Lithuania fail to clear Cresswell's deep free-kick, and the ball eventually sits up nicely for Keane just inside the box, but the Everton defender screws his first-time volley wide of the goal. That is the closest England have come.

    26’ - PENALTY TO ENGLAND! Alli is brought down inside the box by Verbickas, and the referee has no choice other than to point to the spot. This is the perfect chance for Kane to put the visitors ahead...
    27’ - GOAL - KANE SCORES! A superb penalty from England's talisman as he sends the ball into the bottom left corner. The goalkeeper dived the right way but couldn't get near it.

    52’ – CHANCE FOR WINKS! Setkus isn't at all convincing as he punches Cresswell's dangerous cross right into the path of Winks, but he makes amends with a smart save from the Tottenham playmaker's shot. Almost a debut goal for Winks.

    54’ - CHANCE FOR LITHUANIA! A dangerous low ball into the England box causes Keane all sorts of problems, and in an effort to concede a corner he almost inadvertently sends it into his own net! He is bailed out by Butland who makes a good reactive save.

    83’ - GREAT CHANCE TO EQUALISE! Matulevicius is released behind the England defence and the ball sits up perfectly for him, but his half-volley is struck straight at Butland who gathers on the second attempt. Either side of him and it was a goal.

    KEY STATS

    Harry Kane has scored 15 goals in his last 10 matches in all competitions for club and country.
    Of the 43 goals that Harry Kane has scored for club and country in 2017, only four have been penalties.
    A Spurs player has been directly involved in nine of England's last 11 goals across all competitions.
    England end their Group F programme with eight clean sheets in 10 matches.
    England have won all four of their previous encounters with Lithuania on the international stage, scoring 10 and conceding none in the process.

  • Harry Kane sends England to Russia World Cup with stoppage-time winner

    World Cup Qualifier, Wembley – England 1 (Harry Kane 94’) Slovenia 0

    Harry Kane struck at the death as England booked their place at the 2018 World Cup finals despite an underwhelming display in a 1-0 win over Slovenia at Wembley.

    Gareth Southgate's side knew their fate was in their own hands, but laboured for long spells until Kane pounced in stoppage time to claim his 14th goal in his last nine matches for club and country.
    Scotland's victory over Slovakia meant a point would have been enough in the end, but this England side's habit for scoring late on resurfaced at just the right time to ensure they rounded off their Wembley campaign on a positive note.

    The result means the Three Lions are six points clear of second-placed Scotland, with just one game to play in Group F.

    England will now look to remain unbeaten in qualifying when they visit Lithuania on Sunday.

    TALKING POINT

    Mission accomplished in underwhelming fashion for Southgate, but the big test is yet to come. Overall, it's been a qualifying campaign littered with average performances and a hint of controversy - but at the end of it all it is a case of job done. Southgate answered the SOS call following Sam Allardyce's ever so brief reign and has steered his side through a group they were always expected to top. Of course, England sides of recent years have been fine in qualifying, but it's at the major tournaments where they come up way short. Clocking up so many qualifying matches without a loss is no mean feat, but there's no doubt England will have to improve if they are to make any sort of significant impression when faced with sterner tests in Russia next summer. Expectations will remain low based on this evidence.
    MAN OF THE MATCH

    Marcus Rashford (England). The Manchester United starlet is the go-to man when it come to looking for a spark in this England side. Could and perhaps should have scored in the second half, but most of England's good moments came through him on the left until Kane stole the headlines in the 94th minute. Rashford turns 20 later this month and seems a shoe-in for a starting berth in Russia next summer.
    PLAYER RATINGS

    ENGLAND: Hart 8, Walker 7, Bertrand 7, Stones 7, Cahill 7, Henderson 6, Dier 6, Oxlade-Chamberlain 6, Sterling 6, Rashford 8, Kane 6. Subs: Lingard 6, Keane n/a.

    SLOVENIA: Oblak 7, Struna 6, Mevlja 6, Cesar 6, Jokic 6, Rotman 6, Krhin 6, Bezjak 6, Ilicic 7, Verbic 6, Sporar 6. Subs: Birsa 7, Repas 6, Matavz 7.

    Matchcast: Full match stats and commentary


    9' - PENALTY SHOUT! Josip Ilicic makes a clever dart to the right of the penalty area and is rewarded with a corner as Hart came to block. The Slovenian looks at the referee quizzically. Replays show the keeper didn't get the ball and appeared to catch the forward's heel. Let off for England?

    45+1' - ENGLAND CHANCE. Rashford tries to catch Oblak out with a low free kick towards the near post, but the keeper is alert to the danger and pushes it wide.

    63' - ENGLAND CHANCE. England break from a Slovenia corner. Sterling leads the charge and lays it into the path of Rashford who goes for the lob over the advancing keeper but sees it hacked clear inside the six-yard box.

    69' - ENGLAND CHANCE. Rashford causes problems on the left once more. He finds Sterling, who sees his shot blocked before Kane flashes the follow-up just past the far post.
    85' - SLOVENIA CHANCE. Hart comes out to bravely save at the feet of Tim Matavz after the Slovenia striker was sent clear. The keeper then saves the follow-up. Replays showing it should have been flagged offside - but Hart didn't know that.

    90+4' - GOAL! ENGLAND 1-0 SLOVENIA. Kane lifts the mood inside Wembley as he slides home Walker's cross after the full back had seized upon Oblak's over-anxious early throw out. England are heading to Russia!

    KEY STATS

    England have lost just one of their last 19 matches at home, and none in the last eight, winning eight and drawing one.

    England qualify for World Cup for 6th successive time, equalling their record. They also participated in six in a row from 1950 to 1970.

    Kane's previous international home goal was on 22 May 2016, in England's 2-1 friendly win against Turkey at Etihad Stadium.

  • Dele Alli banned for one game by FIFA for middle-finger gesture

    England midfielder Dele Alli has been handed a one-match ban by FIFA for his middle-finger gesture during the World Cup qualifier against Slovakia.

    The incident came about during England’s 2-1 victory at the start of September, when Alli was frustrated by referee Clement Turpin’s failure to give a free-kick for what he felt was a foul by Martin Skrtel.
    Alli was caught on camera sticking up his middle finger, but after the match claimed it was directed at his former club team-mate Kyle Walker, with the Football Association submitting evidence to try and prove this.

    He could have received a suspension of up to four matches, but FIFA have decided to hand the Tottenham player a one-match ban.

    World football's governing body said in a statement that although the gesture was "allegedly directed at team-mate" it was still "offensive and unsporting."

    It means that Alli will miss the match against Slovenia at Wembley on October 5, but is free to play in the clash in Lithuania three days later.

  • Southgate keeps faith with Hart, calling him England's 'best goalkeeper'

    Gareth Southgate is keeping the faith with Joe Hart as England's number one, insisting he remains the best goalkeeper in the country.

    Speaking ahead of Friday's World Cup qualifier against Malta, Southgate declined to offer details of his outfield selections or chosen captain but made a point of confirming Hart would retain the gloves at the Ta'Qali National Stadium.

    The 30-year-old has endured a rocky start to his season-long loan at West Ham, conceding 10 goals in his first three matches, and the competition from Jack Butland, Tom Heaton and Jordan Pickford is only getting stronger.

    But Southgate was clear that the status quo has yet to be overturned, with Hart's record of conceding just twice in six qualifiers counting in his favour.
    "Joe will start for us. I think he's our best goalkeeper at the moment," he said.

    "I wanted to see how he would respond because he has had a difficult start to the season with his club but I'm pleased he's in a good frame of mind. Joe has trained really well.

    "His performances since I've been manager have been very, very good, he's only conceded two goals in Scotland in this qualifying campaign."

    While Southgate was emphatic in standing up for Hart, he gave just enough hope to the challengers that it was not a lost cause before next summer's World Cup.
    "We're only three matches into the start of the season, so I don't feel as though the others have had time to stake a claim to push Joe out of that position," he explained.

    "But we've got three excellent goalkeepers here, there's Jordan who was with us (before withdrawing through injury), and Fraser Forster, who is very unfortunate not to be in the squad.

    "I'm fascinated to see how they all get on over the next few months."

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