Kane strikes to see off minnows but England fail to convince
David Hytner Wembley
Possibly the best illustration of how toothless England were for long spells of this never-in-doubt victory over the fourth-worst team in Europe was that they mustered their first shot on target in the 64th minute. It came from Trent Alexander-arnold and it was routine for the Malta goalkeeper, Henry Bonello. England had been ahead since Enrico Pepe’s eighth-minute own goal, forced by Phil Foden, who was the best player on the pitch. But it was all a bit vanilla, Gareth Southgate’s team not needing to overexert themselves and not doing so. Qualification for the European Championship finals next summer had already been secured, the jeopardy long since removed from the campaign and it was difficult to get too angry about the failure to rack up the goals. The massive Wembley crowd did not. They were relaxed as England rather went through the motions. Harry Kane was incensed to be shown a yellow card for a 28thminute dive inside the area; it was a seen-them-given penalty appeal, the contact with Bonello there but he could smile after sweeping home the second goal following a lovely team move – which stood out, in truth, because of its novelty factor. Southgate had wanted to win and to entertain; the former remained the priority, even if it was impossible to imagine anything other than one result. Malta arrived with no points from seven ties in the group but the statistic that truly damned them was the one that says they have won only seven qualifiers in 61 years of trying. “We know that we will have to suffer,” said the manager, Michele Marcolini, said at the pre-match press conference. Incredibly, Malta might have scored first and inside the first minute, Matthew Guillaumier robbing Conor Gallagher and passing to Teddy Teuma, who fizzed a low first-time drive inches past Jordan Pickford’s post. If that was certainly not a part of the script for England, what came shortly afterwards was more like it. Foden’s first touch, that set the ball up the inside-right channel for him to chase, was typically instinctive and how he chased, flicking on the afterburners to zoom into the area. He thought that the cutback was on, although he might have gone for goal himself, but it did not reach the intended recipient, Kane. Instead, it hit Pepe and flew past Bonnello. Pepe can say he scored at Wembley. Foden brought the tricks and the bursts but Malta could reflect upon a good first half; they let England know they were in a physical contest, kept their shape and made a few inroads, Paul Mbong blasting one shot high. Marcolini could be seen hopping in frustration on 18 minutes when his team missed a pass to advance into the final third. It suggested that he thought England could be got at. He and his players did not look overawed, with Teuma enjoying some nice moments on the ball. The big talking point of the first-half came when the referee, Luís Godinho, chose to ignore an England penalty claim for a challenge by Bonello on Kane and book the England captain for diving. Bonello had taken a heavy touch on a back pass, Kane nipped in and left his trailing leg behind him, waiting for the contact from Bonello, which duly came. Kane has certainly seen them given. It was all too pedestrian from England before the interval, lacking in incision, the statistic that damned them being that they failed to get a shot on target in the opening 45 minutes. The crowd made Mexican waves and threw paper planes. As the second half got under way, it was plain that the occasion needed a lift from an England point of view. Southgate agreed. He felt he needed the cut and thrust of Kyle Walker and Bukayo Saka, introducing them for Fikayo Tomori, who had been asked to play out position at leftback, and Gallagher, for whom this was a missed opportunity. Tomori did absorb a couple of heavy tackles. Southgate had tinkered slightly with his midfield shape at the outset, reverting to 4-3-3 from the recently trialled 4-2-3-1. The injured Jude Bellingham was missed and so was Declan Rice until he came on as a 61st-minute substitute. It will have annoyed Southgate to see how Malta were able to get around the back of his midfield, at times. It was not Marcus Rashford’s night. He could get little going and, when he nutmegged Steve Borg, he found himself in a sandwich between the Malta captain and chasing Joseph Mbong. Down he went but it was no penalty. At least he did not get booked. The icing on the cake came when Alexander-arnold took a touch and surged forward only to crash straight into Rashford, who had got in the way. Rashford needed treatment and he would be substituted shortly afterwards, Cole Palmer coming on for his first cap. Southgate got Foden into a central role after the interval and he was involved in the second goal, looking first-time for Saka after positive approach work from Alexanderarnold and Walker. Saka then went first-time for Kane, teeing up a simple chance for him. Rice would be denied a third moments later. After a storming run and jink inside, he belted past Bonello from distance only for the VAR to spot that the ball had brushed off Kane, who was in an offside position.