There was an air of nervousness about the English in the build up to this game. With Slovakia only 2 points behind England but 4 clear of Slovenia & Scotland this amounted to a free hit for the Slovaks- win and they’re top, lose and they’d still be in a playoff place.
According to FIFA’s rankings Slovakia are 22 in the world ahead of the likes of Ireland, USA, Holland & every side in Africa.
And Slovakia made a lightning start. After 2 minutes Marcus Rashford was dispossessed by Nemec whose quick pass released Lobotka who slipped the ball past Hart 0-1. Dier and Hart were both at fault
England were shell shocked and struggled to find their rhythm.
For the first 20 minutes Slovakia pinged the ball around with confidence and looked dangerous every time they attacked.
But as the half wore on Slovakia became increasing defensive and their attacks sparse, England slowly found their game with Alli increasingly linking well with the previously isolated Kane and Henderson pulling the strings.
On 36 minutes Kane got on the end of a through ball and was fouled but stayed on his feet to get a shot off which was deflected for a corner. From there a scuffed Rashford corner was volleyed home by Dier 1-1.
England continued to push with Kane working the channels and Rashford a constant threat.
On the stroke of halftime Weiss took advantage of Cahill being disposed but Walker showed great recovery pace to smoke out the chance but only by committed a foul. Fortunately for England Weiss got his feet in a mess and the referee mistook that for Walker clearing the ball.
England started the second half the quicker with 2 half chances falling to Oxlade-Chamberlain.
On 54 minutes Slovakia broke neatly and Nemec hit a header straight at Hart- their first shot in target since their goal.
2 minutes later Kane’s persistence put Alli through but he scuffed it. But on 58 minutes the ball broke for Rashford who hit with a fizzing shot that nestled in the bottom left of the net 2-1.
After 65 minutes the game became increasingly shapeless as Slovakia searched for an equaliser whilst England went into game management mode.
Meanwhile Rashford might have done better with a free kick he blazed wide.
On 80 minutes a burst of pace from Oxlade- Chamberlain opened up Slovakia but he shot at a Defenders legs.
Sterling entered the fray with 7 minutes left and immediately had run and shot, meanwhile England’s back line held firm to see out the win.
It puts England 5 points clear with 2 to play, with a home game against Slovenia and trip to Lithuania to finish England have reached match point on the road to Russia.
Performance wise England went through 3 distinct phases; stuttering start 0-20 mins, committed game chasing 20- 65 mins and finally game management to full time.
It wasn’t scintillating but it was a well earned victory under pressures against capable opposition.
Most of the attention will inevitably fall on Rashford and his recovery from a nightmare start to match winner.
As for the World Cup this wasn’t a performance to have the favourites quaking in their boots but at least showed a more streetwise England a quality desperately lacking in Brazil 2014 and Euro 2016.
Southgate talked after Kane’s last gasp equaliser at Hampden Park of England’s improved mentality and this was in evidence again last night. At 0-1 nobody panicked,hung their head or looked like they were thinking about the next days press reaction. Style and better quality is still needed (and should be provided by our successful 17-20 age groups eventually) but this tougher England will do for now.
Hart 4- he was dogsh@t bad at Euro 2016, error prone with Torino, has conceded 10 already at West Ham, guess what happened 2 minutes in!? That surely is that barring a miraculous upturn in form
Walker 6- a threat going forward but occasionally his positioning went astray. Lucky to avoid a red on the stroke of half time.
Bertrand 6- solid but little else.
Henderson 7- started slowly (copy and paste for entire team) but grew in influence as the game went on, a much needed upgrade on Livermore.
Cahill 6- almost dropped a clanger but a solid night for the Chelsea skipper
Jones 8- continued his excellent club form onto the international stage. Still a long way to go to meet those early Duncan Edwards/ Franco Baresi comparisons.
Rashford 8- England must accept he’s going to make mistakes as he develops, an excellent goal and a constant menace to Slovakia’s backline. Now a nailed on starter
Dier 6- at fault on the goal but made amends with a fine finish. Works better with a more forward thinking midfield partner and concerns when pressured in possession remain.
Kane 7- didn’t score but worked hard and caused problems between the centre half and fullbacks. Paramount to his teams fortunes.
Alli 7- much better tonight aside from flipping the bird. Found space and caused trouble after a shaky opening period. Making incremental steps to being the world class player England crave.
Oxlade-chamberlain 5- ran and ran but wasteful with his chances. Will have better nights with England.
Sterling 6- provided a pacey outlet in the final minutes.
Welbeck 5- did he touch the ball in his 7 minutes cameo?
Livermore n/a- played literally 10 seconds.