Lads, it’s San Marino. Anything that England did here, as they kicked off their campaign to qualify for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, was always going to be seen through the prism of what was in front of them – namely the worst team in international football.
San Marino are ranked 210th out of 210 by Fifa and, since they began playing official matches in 1990, they have won only once – against Liechtenstein in a 2004 friendly. Their record in World Cup qualifiers when they pitched up here showed 64 losses and 2 draws from 66 attempts and an average of 4.7 goals conceded.
In a sense Gareth Southgate and England were on a hiding to nothing in what had the feel of an attack-versus-defence training exercise. San Marino’s heaviest drubbing was a 13-0 inflicted by Germany and England were meant to run up a high score.
That they managed only five owed much to a catalogue of loose finishing; at times, it seemed as if England were engaged in an in-house competition for the most glaring miss. Dominic Calvert-Lewin probably edged it when he fluffed a third-minute open goal but John Stones was not far behind with a spoon over the crossbar moments later.
Jesse Lingard, back in the fold after a long lay-off, had one of those nights when the ball would not go in – there were times when it seemed he had to score – but it was difficult to get too vexed. Unless you were Harry Kane, the captain, who was an unused substitute. Had he played he would surely have moved a little closer to Wayne Rooney’s all-time scoring record.
England gave San Marino nothing – Southgate’s team pressed well and barely allowed their opponents to cross halfway– and the standout moment was one to make everyone smile, not least the debutant Ollie Watkins. On as a 63rd-minute substitute, he took a pass late on from another replacement, Phil Foden, before ramming a low shot into the far corner. Calvert-Lewin did score twice while James Ward-Prowse got his first at this level and Raheem Sterling added the other.
The challenges for England will only get harder – they go to Albania on Sunday while the visit of Poland next Wednesday will be a serious test – and it was possible to ask the old question about the merit of San Marino at an early juncture. The gulf in class and conditioning between the teams was no surprise and yet it still bordered on the grotesque.
Southgate’s 4-3-3 system was a talking point, even if he could have configured his team in almost any manner he fancied and still won at a canter. The guile came in central areas from Ward-Prowse, Mason Mount and Jude Bellingham – the latter pair played one half each– while England always had runners up the flanks with Ben Chilwell prominent from left-back. They moved the ball with slickness throughout.
Ward-Prowse’s goal came on 14 minutes when Mount released Chilwell for a smart cut-back and, by then, Sterling had also missed an easy header.
Calvert-Lewin muscled in to convert a Reece James cross and Sterling cut inside to finish with a deflected shot but England could have had double figures by half-time.
The San Marino goalkeeper, Elia Benedettini, will be able to tell his grandchildren about the fine saves he made before the interval to keep out Lingard (twice) and Chilwell while Calvert-Lewin was wide with a spectacular volley and Lingard fluffed a finish from Chilwell’s cross.
Southgate made four changes at half-time, as he managed the minutes of his players, and it was interesting to see that he introduced Foden on the right of the front three, rather than in one of the No 8 roles. In either 4-3-3 or, perhaps more relevantly, 3-4-3, the manager seems to see him as a winger.
Calvert-Lewin did not celebrate his second goal – a tap-in from Lingard’s low cross after a Chilwell ball in behind – even if his heart must have leapt and there were similar emotions for Watkins when Southgate brought him on. Calvert-Lewin was the player to make way; Kane sunk a little further into his seat.
England’s intensity was lower in the second half and the volume of their chances reduced. That said, it would have been difficult to top the first-half. Ward-Prowse struck a free-kick with trademark dip and precision that Benedettini clawed against a post and away while Watkins teed up Bellingham for a scissor kick that bounced down and just wide. Bellingham’s promise flickers brightly.
Then came the moment that Watkins will never forget. He took one touch to control, another to tee himself up and, in the blink of an eye, the ball was arrowing into the net. Six years ago Watkins was playing non-league football with Weston-super-Mare. Fairytale barely covers it.