This was supposed to be a party- the moment Gareth Southgate’s England would play some flowing football and storm to Russia. But England qualifying games are rarely that simple. For those who’ve been living on Mars since Sunday night a win would take England through and a draw would be enough if Slovakia failed to beat Scotland.
England started confidently with Sterling in his revised number 10 role causing the Slovenians problems as England dominated possession without creating a clear cut chance. Then in the 8th minute Sterling gave the ball away in midfield and Slovenian danger man Ilicic broke into the England box and was clipped by Hart- fortunately for England the referee saw it as a collision rather than a foul- a let off.
The spanner it through in the works knocked England out of their stride and a loose period of play saw England continuously give the ball away and snuggle to regain their early composure.
As was the case last month against Slovakia it was Rashford who got England going again, a darting run down the left jangled Slovenian nerves and a neat cross almost put Cahill in. Then in the 20th minute the temperature raised after some agricultural defending from the Slovenians and England started to move up the gears. England’s first clear sight of goal came from Henderson in the 25th minute who broke into the box and hit an angled shot that drew a good save from Oblak.
By now Rashford was enjoying himself and playing with the impudence of a schoolboy but the defensive problems continued as Slovenia consistently found gaps between England’s midfield and defence. in the 34th minute Sterling drew a poor challenge from holding midfielder Krhin just outside the box, bit despite the promising central position of the ensuing free kick England opted for the less than prolific Walker to take it, needless to say he blazed it over the bar. Before long Krhin was booked as Slovenia’s defending grew ever more clumsy, but England continued to labour. The last action of the first half inevitably centre on Rashford whose trickery drew a foul and he forced a smart save from Oblak with the ensuing free kick and then a flick on from Cahill with the ensuing corner but with no reward 0-0 at half time
Slovenia started the second half the sharper and Ilicic swung in a cross that left back Jokic headed tamely at Hart. But the game settled back into the pattern of the first half with Slovenia looking tidy with their limited possession and England slow and ponderous whilst keeping it for longer spells. The crowd became firstly bored and then restless as Walker gave away a needless chance and Slovenia again grew in ambition.
Finally on 62 minutes England showed some pace when a quick break from a Slovenia corner saw Sterling feed Rashford who tried to chip the keeper but didn’t get enough on the ball, minutes later another quick move down the left saw Sterling shoot from the centre of the box and force a desperate clearance from Cesar.
The introduction of Lingard for the ineffective Oxlade-Chamberlain gave England the impetus as he linked well with Sterling and Rashford to unsettle Slovenia’s defence and again down the left Rashford created a chance for Kane who’s angled shot flew wide.
But the drab shapeless look soon returned and on 82 minutes some awful officiating saw a foul on Lingard go unpunished then from the ensuing break an offside missed forcing Hart into an excellent double save.
The most entertainment in the closing stages looked like being provided by a paper aeroplane and a (fully clothed) pitch invader, until the 4th official weirdly found 6 minutes of injury time that initially sounded like a punishment for the crowd for laughing at the pitch invasion. But suddenly England found some thrust and the otherwise awful Walker pounced on a poor clearance and whipped in a cross which Kane toe-poked home 1-0 on 93 minutes, 5 minutes later England’s qualification was confirmed.
This game was like a visit to the dentist: awkward painful but with the necceasary work completed. Clearly there’s plenty to work on and the media bullsh$t started in earnest when Ian Wright pointed out how much harder Northern Ireland’s group is (that’s because England are ranked higher than Northern Ireland, Ian!) But the bare minimum requirement has been met and for the next 8 months that will have to do.
Hart 7- Lucky not to concede a penalty in the early stages and had little to do until his brilliant double save.
Walker 5- Awful until injury time. Started brightly but quickly faded, gave away 2 good chances when he suffered brain farts both by knocking aimless balls into gaping holes in England’s defence. But made amends with his powerful runs in injury time and finally a great cross which Kane dispatched.
Bertrand 6- Solid in defence (as usual) and linked well with Rashford. Edging ever closer to being first choice left back.
Dier 5- Frankly awful, provided little defence stability and ponderous on the ball.
Cahill 6- Solid against nobody for the most part, occasionally threatening at the over end but little to write home about.
Stones 6- As above but little sign of his ball playing skills- his one forward thrust saw him miscontrol and pick up a booking.
Sterling 6- Some early incision and drew some fouls with his footwork but not comfortable as a number 10. Played far better in the final third of the game when played on the right.
Henderson 5- forced a good save from Oblak but like Dier provided neither defensive stability nor attacking incision, how is he in the running for the captaincy?
Kane 6- Had to feed off scraps as England struggled to create chances. Worked hard and took his chance when it finally arrived.
Rashford 8- Creative, quick and the best player in a white shirt by a long distance. One negative was his dodgy set piece delivery.
Oxlade-Chamberlain 5- Early zip quickly disintegrated. Hooked early in the second half. Will be dropped in Lithuania.
Lingard 7- Bright and linked well with Sterling and Rashford.
Keane n/a Touched the ball at some stage, I think.