England scored as many goals as Nick Pope had touches of the ball in the first half and they really should have scored many more in what was the mother of all mismatches against San Marino. How much Gareth Southgate will have learned from it all is difficult to say.
It was an opportunity for stats to be padded, reputations to be enhanced, easy headlines to be made, and the players knew it. Skipper for the night Raheem Sterling had seven shots of his own in the first half, perhaps aware he would not be appearing for the second half.
But Jesse Lingard matched that shot total of seven for the opening 45 minutes and while he was not among the scorers nor was he done at the interval. It was his bright run down the left flank that set up Dominic Calvert-Lewin to make it four early in the second half.
Lingard picked up intelligent positions throughout, playing with an energy that has been apparent in his West Ham performances of late. When the game was over, he had fired off 10 shots and created three chances for his team-mates. The chance to impress was seized.
He had appeared to have drifted out of Southgate’s plans due to his inactivity at Manchester United. This was his first international appearance since the Nations League finals in Portugal back in the summer of 2019. But he is back in the plans now.
Southgate made the point beforehand that his World Cup team was broken up quite quickly. “When you go to a semi-final you would imagine that squad would stay fairly consistent for the next couple of years. We have had a bigger upheaval than we expected.”
But with John Stones also returning to the squad having found form at Manchester City and with seven others from that semi-final starting line-up well placed to feature this summer, there is a sense that for all the young talent, Southgate is getting the gang back together.
Stones was only involved for 45 minutes against San Marino, perhaps an indication he will see more action alongside his World Cup defensive partners Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker before this batch of qualifiers are through. He adds a new dimension in defence.
Conor Coady is comfortable enough on the ball, while Tyrone Mings boasts that natural left foot, but only Stones really steps out with the class of an international midfielder. His presence would alleviate some of the concerns about the caution of five at the back.
The appetite for something new is always there in international football and with such a plethora of England prospects, despite having blooded so many of them in recent times, it seems inevitable Southgate will be accused of stifling someone this summer.
But it is telling that he has noted the need for tournament experience too. Stones and Lingard bring that to the squad. With a bit of extra quality sprinkled on that World Cup group, success at the Euros could yet feel like a natural progression from Russia in 2018.
One man who can hope to appear at his first international tournament for England is James Ward-Prowse, the man who opened the scoring, sweeping home with his left foot after breaking into the penalty box. It was not a trademark goal from the Southampton midfielder. It was a reminder that he does so much more.
As early as two minutes into the match, he opened his body to play a sharp forward pass when it would have been easier to recycle possession in the middle of the pitch. He had that urgency about him, aware that increasing the speed of the passing would be the key on the night.
When Ward-Prowse is whipping balls into the box with such accuracy or curling free-kicks towards the top corner – something he did manage in the second half only to see his effort palmed onto the post – it is easy to regard the 26-year-old midfielder as a very particular weapon for his side.
But while those qualities could prove extremely valuable for Gareth Southgate in a tournament, Ward-Prowse has developed into an all-rounder, using the ball sensibly and quickly, covering the ground like few of his peers can, and with the defensive nous to play deeper in a two-man midfield.
His skills in dead-ball situations are likely to be enough to carry him into the England squad this summer. Ward-Prowse’s overall qualities might yet be enough to force him into the team.
Even before the World Cup Qualifiers got underway this week, Scotland knew they were facing an uphill task to fight for any more than second place in Group F, behind a Denmark side who should prove easily the victors over the next two years.
With that in mind, a point against a talented Austria side in their opening game is not in itself a bad result, certainly in the manner with which it was achieved – twice coming from behind to level. Their point owed more to character than quality in a performance as patchy as the Glasgow weather.
The word kept coming up in Steve Clarke’s post-match comments, largely unprompted. “We’ve progressed as a team, we believe in ourselves a little bit more,” he added.
Yes, this could prove two points dropped against one of Scotland’s rival sides who will fancy their chances of beating them to second spot, and who may well enjoy the luxury of playing the return leg in front of partisan support.
With the Faroe Islands and Moldova likely the also-rans of the group, a trip to Israel on Sunday provides the kind of test that will prove whether the result can be put down to experience or may prove more problematic in time; lose there and it’s one point from two games for Scotland, three for Israel and perhaps four for Austria. That would leave them facing an uphill task already.
The character already on display can go some way to avoiding that scenario, but quality is needed too. McGinn provided that Premier League class to level up against Austria with a moment of magic late on, while Che Adams had to wait until midway through the second period to make his entrance – which appeared a message from Clarke that he will not walk straight into the team after changing allegiances.
However, now that bridge has been crossed, he has to start. Scotland’s regular number nine, Lyndon Dykes, is a different prospect, an old fashioned target man, but he has scored six goals in the Championship all season. Adams is agile, has an eye for goal and has more than that for Southampton in the Premier League this season.
Whether they play together or not, Adams has to start in Israel. He is on the same wavelength as players like Kieran Tierney, Andrew Robertson and McGinn. Considering Scotland managed to score only four goals away from home in Euro 2020 qualifying, in a group including Cyprus, Kazakhstan and San Marino, quality such as his needs utilising.
A new competition, a new start. That was the hope.
Instead, it was the same old story for Stephen Kenny and his Republic of Ireland team as there was plenty of positives to take from their 3-2 defeat in Serbia but unfortunately no points. The timing of Aleksandar Mitrovic’s return was luckless for Kenny and his team.
The striker’s last act before this in a competitive match for Serbia was one that Scotland fans will never forget – when his penalty in the European Championship playoff was saved by David Marshall. He was on a retrieval mission here when thrown on with 30 minutes remaining and put in a masterclass of centre-forward play, scoring twice and holding the ball with real quality to take the game away from Ireland.
He has now scored 38 goals for Serbia, more than any other player since the country started competing as an independent nation.
This defeat represents a damaging early blow for Ireland’s hopes of reaching the World Cup in Qatar, they will need to either win a group that contains Portugal to qualify automatically or finish as group runners-up to enter the playoffs where just three teams can grab a final qualification place. A defeat to their nearest rivals in that regard does not bode well. It’s looking likely they will need to get a result against Portugal to challenge Serbia now for the second spot.
Worryingly, it’s now nine games without a win for Kenny.
There have been moments for optimism along the way, especially in the way he wants his team to pass the ball with a purpose. However, what has been lost is the steely platform in defence that has led Ireland to some great nights under Martin O’Neill and Mick McCarthy in recent years. For those sceptical about Kenny’s ability to get the best out of the squad, this latest defeat will have only sharpened their knives further.
There’s no shame in defeat to Belgium.
Roberto Martinez’s side are the No 1 ranked side in the world and their stellar line-up is the envy of countries all around the world, but for spells in their 3-1 defeat in Leuven, Wales did okay.
They did more than okay for Harry Wilson’s opener. Wilson’s finish rounded off a sensational 17-pass move, and it gave Wales a strong foothold in the game as they tried to repeat their famous Euro 2016 quarter-final win over Belgium.
It was a tough ask but defeat now puts a lot of emphasis on the Czech Republic game. You want to stay unbeaten at home for as long as possible in the campaign, if not the whole way through. So, that game kind of turns into a must-win early on because you want to gain that momentum as early as possible.
However, on this occasion they ran into a very different Belgium side. Kevin De Bruyne led the recovery for the hosts and his strike followed by Thorgan Hazard’s header and Romelu Lukaku’s second-half penalty secured Belgium’s first win over Wales since September 2012.
For Wales, who taste defeat for the first time in 12 competitive matches, they have to bounce back and do it quickly. After a friendly against Mexico on Saturday, they face a crucial World Cup qualifier against Czech Republic, who were 6-2 winners against Estonia on Wednesday evening, at the Cardiff City Stadium.
A second straight defeat to open the campaign could leave them staring up at Belgium and next Tuesday’s opponents with a gap that even at this very early stage could prove too big to overturn.
It’s very early in a qualifying campaign to be talking about must-win games, but life could be very tricky for caretaker boss Rob Page in his side and their bid to reach Qatar, if they fail to get a positive result next week.
If Northern Ireland are to have any chance of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup by finishing in the top two of Group C, then they are going to have to tighten up at the back.
Sure, no one truly believed they would get something from their trip to Northern Italy, especially given the hosts have never lost a home World Cup qualifier.
However, the visitors did not make life easy for themselves in Parma, conceding two cheap goals before half-time that all but ended the game as a contest.
While Northern Ireland improved drastically in the second half and were unfortunate not to score, Ian Baraclough knows his team must keep clean sheets against Switzerland, Bulgaria and Lithuania if they want to make it to Qatar 2022.
Live World Cup Qualifier
Saturday 27th March 7:30pm
The problem is that they have only kept one shut out in their last 14 games and none in their most recent 10 encounters, although what better time to put that dismal record right than a home to Bulgaria on Wednesday night?