England need a penalty to overcome Lithuania in dour affair

Harry Kane’s spot kick meant Gareth Southgate’s side ended the campaign with a win

Lithuania 0 England 1

There was a moment early in the second half here when the referee, Orel Grinfeld, had to stop play after the children enjoying a kick-about on a five-a-side pitch at the open end of this tiny arena hoofed a yellow football over the netting and on to the turf. Those standing behind the goal at that end of the ground must have been tempted thereafter to turn around and watch the kids’ energetic and whooped attempts to keep warm instead of the main attraction. So much of this was desperately humdrum.

Perhaps this was a fitting way for England’s qualifying campaign to conclude. That they will grace the World Cup next summer should be applauded – the likes of the Netherlands and even Argentina must crave being in the position to spy negatives in progress to Russia – and their defensive record excellent with only three goals shipped en route, but so much of their journey to the finals has been forgettable. Not always a stroll, but lacking any drama with the exception of those frantic final moments at Hampden Park.

Those soaked to the skin in Lithuania, the rain having poured down all night, had hoped for evidence of progress or attacking promise but, in the end, were treated to more of the same. The visitors were victorious, but hardly set the pulses racing. Maybe games against Brazil and Germany next month will be more revealing occasions, but something is lacking. The worry is it might be quality.


This had been a fixture rendered meaningless, a game endured by at least 2,000 hardy away fans and a few more locals all clad in waterproof plastic ponchos as the rain set in, and yet the visitors had still needed a performance. The plod against Slovenia last Thursday had been so dispiriting, even in late victory, that qualification had almost gone forgotten, overshadowed by concerns at what might actually now happen in Russia. Southgate had acknowledged all the apprehension which had been festering and had arrived in Vilnius acutely aware that his players needed to entertain as well as dismiss a side ranked 120 in the world. Lithuania had failed to overcome even Malta last week. The English had needed to dazzle in the drizzle.

Yet, for all that a lead was established midway through the opening period, this still felt uninspiring. For long periods it might have been a training match played on an artificial pitch, an exercise in rather nervy, laborious attack versus enthusiastic but limited defence. It was encouraging to see Harry Winks – the 12th player coached by Mauricio Pochettino, either at Southampton or Tottenham Hotspur, to debut for the England senior team – settle into midfield as one of seven changes and offer some busy energy and tidy delivery. He was hardly pressured by Arvydas Novikovas and Obidijus Verbickas, of course, but the 21-year-old scuttled about in his throwback black boots, drew a fine save from Ernestas Setkus from a left-footed half-volley, and generally looked as if he belonged.

There were flashes of enterprise and menace, too, from Marcus Rashford whenever he glided into space, or Dele Alli when he was able to charge from deep into enemy territory. It was the Spurs player, restored after suspension, who was chopped down by Verbickas as he attempted to gather a bouncing ball for the Israeli official to point to the spot midway through the first half. But, even with their monopoly of the ball, the same, familiar shortcomings remained. There was precious little zest or incision to far too much of the build-up play and even the attention of a drenched away support, initially so boisterous, had been starting to drift when Harry Kane's penalty shrugged them awake. That was one of only two shots mustered on target during the first half. In the circumstances, it was tempting to wonder whether Winks might have been given the No40 jersey to sum up the mood.

The management will have spied encouragement in his team's three at the back, a formation that allowed Kieran Trippier and Aaron Cresswell licence to gallop forward down the flanks. Yet the switch in system felt less significant with so many of the personnel having been changed from Southgate's first-choice selection. It was hard to draw too many conclusions. The sight of Kane's penalty bulging the net was to be expected, a seventh international goal in six appearances never in doubt. The striker became the first player to score for England in his first four games as captain in the process. All-comers will be wary of him come the tournament next summer. Yet England will need a threat from others in their ranks.

The hosts had their moments. Vytautas Andriuskevicius' centre prompted a pang of early panic as Harry Maguire, another debutant, slipped and Darvydas Sernas flicked a volley into the side-netting. The Leicester City defender was on edge here, perhaps unsettled by an early inability to convert Cresswell's centre from close range, and was exposed by Fiodor Cernych on the counter-attack just before the hour mark. While Maguire was desperately charging back having been caught upfield, the Lithuania forward flung over a centre which Michael Keane inadvertently poked goalwards.

Jack Butland, on his first competitive start for his country since the last visit here two years ago, did well to push the ball aside and would deny the substitute, Deivydas Matulevicius, before the end. He would not be beaten. Neither would England. And yet, even in victory, it still all felt vaguely unfulfilling.

(Guardian service)