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Harry Kane penalty gives England win in Lithuania to end qualifying campaign

Harry Kane of England looks thoughtful after the FIFA 2018 World Cup Group F Qualifier between Lithuania and England at LFF Stadium on October 8, 2017 in Vilnius, Lithuania.

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 artificial surface.

Those standing behind the goal at that end of the ground, amused by the brief interruption, must have been tempted thereafter to turn around and watch the kids’ whooped attempts to keep warm instead. So much of the main attraction proved desperately humdrum.

Perhaps this was a fitting way for England’s qualifying campaign to conclude. The main objective has been met and the fact that the team will grace the World Cup next summer should be applauded. Holland, for instance, and Argentina must crave being in the position to linger over negatives while progressing to Russia. Yet so much of the side’s journey to the finals has been forgettable, lacking in drama with the exception of those frantic final moments at Hampden Park back in June. A last-minute equaliser to choke the Scots was about as memorable as it got.

The tempo of the football has rarely set the pulses racing and the wins have been rather laboured in a group where the English have found themselves confronted by massed defence at almost every turn. There has been no room to breathe, let alone scintillate. The friendlies against Germany and Brazil next month are enticing purely because they should be more open occasions, fixtures likelier to have the juices flowing, for all that the calibre of opponent will generate a different kind of problem. But, even taking into account the particular quirks of this group, something has been lacking up to now. The worry is that it might be quality.

Harry Kane admitted that was what had been lacking in the final third in Vilnius, when the visitors hogged the ball but only four of their 20 attempts forced Ernestas Setkus into saves. Gareth Southgate suggested his players were “a fraction off” in the decisive pass, perhaps unnerved by the speed of the playing surface or disoriented by the seven changes made to the line-up. He clung to the positives of Harry Winks’ impressive debut and the implementation of three at the back, a strategy he considers this team’s best way forward. This had become an occasion to experiment, whether with tactical tweaks or personnel, given qualification had been assured early with that similarly narrow win over Slovenia.

Yet those soaked to the skin through their plastic ponchos in Lithuania, the rain having been relentless all night, had still surely hoped for a little more in terms of attacking promise against a team ranked 120 in the world who had failed to defeat Malta last week. But there was no real zest to the visitors’ approach play, moves running aground too often at the critical point, with glimpses of goal forever snatched or anxious amid the clutter of Lithuanian bodies. In truth, this might have been a training match, an exercise in rather nervy, laborious attack versus enthusiastic but limited defence. It was not much of a spectacle.

It was encouraging to see Winks – the 12th player coached by Mauricio Pochettino, either at Southampton or Tottenham Hotspur, to make his debut for the England senior team – settle into midfield and offer some busy energy and tidy delivery. He was hardly pressured by Arvydas Novikovas and Ovidijus Verbickas, of course, but the 21-year-old scuttled about in his throwback black boots, drew a fine save from Setkus from a left-footed half-volley and generally looked as if he belonged. “One of the big things playing for England isn’t necessarily the opposition but whether you can carry the England shirt,” said Southgate. “Harry showed he could.” The Spurs midfielder’s contribution was the night’s shining positive, though in the context of the whole occasion it was tempting to wonder whether Winks might have been given the No40 jersey just to sum up the mood.

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 forward 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 midway through the first half. That Kane bulged the net from the resultant penalty 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, by then, England will need to have unearthed a threat from others in their ranks.

Not that they were likely to be punished for profligacy here. The hosts had their moments but they were fleeting. 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, perhaps unsettled by an early inability to convert Aaron Cresswell’s centre from close range, and was exposed by Fiodor Cernych on the counter-attack just before the hour. While Maguire was desperately charging back having been caught up-field, 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.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Dominic Fifield at the LFF Stadionas, Vilnius, for The Guardian on Sunday 8th October 2017 19.13 Europe/London

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