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England 2-0 Malta
by Layth Yousif
at Wembley Stadium
AN ENRICO PEPE own goal and a second-half strike from Harry Kane were enough to ease past winless and pointless Malta in front of 81,388 at Wembley Stadium on Friday evening.
Gareth Southgate named an experienced starting XI, as Marcus Rashford, Harry Kane and Phil Foden formed an attacking trident, with Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold featuring as a No10 in midfield.
Prior to kick off, there was an appreciatively hearty minute’s applause for the late Sir Bobby Charlton. One of the finest footballers in the history of the game and a true gentleman.
Jordan Henderson, a player who will be nowhere as appreciated at the end of his career, certainly not by the LGBTQ+ community who he singularly failed when accepting the Saudi Arabia Riyal — or should that be 30 pieces of silver — picked up his 81st England cap, after making a thunderous 13 appearances for al-Ettifaq, currently seventh in the Saudi Pro League.
Of course, Henderson and Raheem Sterling play in different positions, but it is always baffling to note why Southgate still resolutely refuses to pick the Chelsea attacker.
Sterling, who, in his 12 Premier League appearances for his ever-improving Chelsea side has notched four goals and two assists — with standout performances against two previous league leaders, as the Blues routed hitherto unbeaten Spurs, and earned a worthy point against Pep Guardiola's treble winners last time out.
There have always been lies, damn lies, and intransigent football managers. And Southgate is certainly one of those when it comes to Sterling, after leaving the 28-year-old out of his sixth successive Three Lions squad.
Other pre-match statistics included the fact Malta came into the game as the world's 171st-ranked nation, losing all their qualifying matches so far for only the second time in 51 years.
One of five teams without a single point on the board in Euros qualifiers — alongside San Marino, Cyprus, Gibraltar, and Liechtenstein — they at least started brightly.
Maltese No7 Paul Mbong could have scored in the opening minute following a dreadful mistake from Harry Maguire.
The 30-year-old is another who contradicts Southgate’s maxim that players have to be in form and playing regularly for their club sides. The ex-Leicester City defender is lucky to tick the latter, and is nowhere near the former, in the poorest Manchester United side for at least a season or two.
Maguire’s mishit pass out of defence was utterly dreadful — weak and straight into the Malta midfield, with Mbong ruing the fact he failed to test Jordan Pickford from 25 yards.
England learned their lesson and went 1-0 ahead on eight minutes via Enrico Pepe’s own goal. The opener coming after a driving run into the box by Phil Foden, before his cross cannoned off the Maltese No13 and into the net. Unlucky for some.
The goal made it first half strikes in seven games for England during qualifying — with only Portugal (18) scoring more in the opening 45 minutes.
Yet, perhaps the biggest talking point of the first half was Portuguese referee Luis Godinho booking former Spurs captain Harry Kane for diving.
In fairness, there was contact with Maltese keeper Henry Bonello, and Kane did what he normally does and drew the foul — only for the Iberian official to issue a caution to England's record scorer.
An equally contentious decision came at the start of the second half, when Southgate decided to bring on Bukayo Saka in place of Fikayo Tomori.
In the pantheon of pointless substitutions, with England long qualified and assured top spot ahead of the Euro 2024 that will see them placed in the top group of seeds, this baffling change was right up there with the best — or worst — of them.
As the match meandered to a conclusion, prior to the trip to North Macedonia on Monday, there was still time for Saka to tee up captain Kane. The Bayern Munich striker making no mistake from close range to double the lead with 15 minutes remaining.
Substitute Declan Rice — who came on alongside Cole Palmer making his debut just after the hour mark after impressing for Chelsea — had a superb effort ruled out moments later.
Mostly through the sheer and utter joylessness of VAR, after the infernal technology ruled that Kane was the width of an armchair offside as the Arsenal midfielder struck the ball.
That was the prompt for a mass exodus of fans to beat the queues at Wembley Park Tube station, as the match petered out in front of swathes of empty red seats.
No matter. It was job done, albeit against an extremely limited side, whose best feature was their loyal fans' unstinting support in a far corner of the national stadium.
A trip to Skopje is up next as North Macedonia awaits in the final match of this Group C qualifying campaign.
Although, with such verve and attacking talent at his disposal, you start to fear Southgate’s frustratingly innate caution will become a serious hindrance against far better sides next summer.
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