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England Extend Flying Start With Five-Star Show Against San Marino

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THE sense of farce at this predictable mismatch was completed just after the final whistle when the England team sponsors revealed Joe Hart had been voted the hosts’ man of the match in an online poll. The goalkeeper, a lonely figure, peripheral from almost all of the action, had touched the ball about as often as his team-mates plundered goals and might have been able to doze off at times. Admittedly only around 420 people had registered their nomination but, in truth, that probably told its own story.

A humdrum thrashing provided another advertisement for lowly-ranked nations having to pre-qualify for qualification campaigns. These games are horribly formulaic. San Marino flooded their defence and were stubborn for a while, outclassed throughout and overwhelmed before the end. They set themselves out to frustrate as best they could and, in only shipping five times, actually departed relatively satisfied.

“Against teams of this stature, sometimes the results are worse,” offered the manager, Pierangelo Manzaroli. “In the first half, England actually overachieved a bit.” That was a reflection of the hosts’ initial inability to infiltrate the Sammarinese ranks with any great fluency but, inevitably, they improved as the visitors tired.

A level of gloss was applied after the interval, Roy Hodgson’s half-time reminders to move the ball with more tempo and stretch the play with greater width presumably ringing in his players’ ears. Yet this was still about as uncompetitive a “competitive” fixture as could be conceived. England should have recorded greater reward from their 33 attempts at goal.

At one point the public address announcer boomed over the Tannoy to claim Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain had scored a fourth for the home side, despite the fact that Adam Lallana had gained the final touch and the referee had actually, and incorrectly, ruled the effort out for offside. He tried again 13 minutes from time, awarding Wayne Rooney the hosts’ fifth when the captain’s cross had flown in off Alessandro Della Valle. At least that provided a sense of pantomime given this was an occasion that lacked the theatre normally associated with a qualifying contest.

Instead, it was effectively a training drill played out in large to a polite, murmuring hubbub in the stands more normally associated with Lord’s further down the Jubilee Line. Hodgson pointed to positives: the pace and incision of Kieran Gibbs on the left on a first start for his country in almost four years; Jack Wilshere’s eager passing, particularly in collaboration with the other four Arsenal players on the pitch, whether advanced or as a midfield anchor; Danny Welbeck’s latest reward in front of goal and Rooney’s 42nd goal for his country.

There was concern that his players had struggled with their first half tempo – their first two goals stemmed from James Milner set-pieces – when slick movement had been required to unnerve the joint-worst side in the international game. But, in a group that is conjuring some surprising results, not least with the Swiss pointless and joint bottom, England continue to sit resplendent and untouchable at the top.

San Marino, a team with one win in 124 internationals and whose last away goal in an European Championship qualifying campaign had been scored six days before Raheem Sterling was even born, were always going to wilt before the end. They had held out for 35 minutes on their previous visit to the national stadium two years ago before subsiding. This was similar, particularly given that, after all their early endeavour, an amateurish mistake undermined them before the half-hour mark as Aldo Simoncini tripped over his team-mate Luca Tosi’s foot in the six-yard box to allow Phil Jagielka to loop a free header into the gaping net.

The goalkeeper’s suggestion he had been fouled by an England player was about as comical as his attempt to claim the centre. Andy Selva, perhaps bored with loitering ignored on the halfway line, was just as panicked three minutes from the interval as he swung a boot at a high ball and caught Rooney in the face. The captain converted the most obvious of penalties with glee.

Oxlade-Chamberlain and Lallana impressed in their second-half cameos, injecting more energy into the home side’s approach with the former embarrassing Manuel Battistini in his first real involvement to centre for Welbeck to convert at the near-post. The £16m signing from Manchester United now boasts 11 goals for his country, the same tally as Sir Stanley Matthews, and is revelling in his opportunity to make a mark while Daniel Sturridge is still in rehabilitation. Hodgson retired him long before the end, along with Sterling and Jordan Henderson, with one eye on a trickier occasion in Estonia on Sunday. Lallana may have played himself into contention to start that game given how bright and inventive his dribbles were here.

After a period of over-elaboration with players attempting to walk the ball home, another substitute, Andros Townsend, eventually grew tired of all the intricate passing and simply skimmed a shot in from distance beyond the goalkeeper. Then came Della Valle’s inadvertent conversion for a fifth and a declaration of sorts.

San Marino have now conceded 300 goals in 65 qualifying games since drawing with Latvia in 2001. It is increasingly hard to justify their participation when the limit of their ambitions is to avoid conceding a cricket score, but they even seemed satisfied to have departed with only five against their name.

England can concentrate now on maintaining momentum in Tallinn. This was a walkover undertaken, for the most part, at a stroll. – The Guardian

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