FOR a long time it had looked as though England might rack up one of their least distinguished results of the Roy Hodgson era. Estonia had been reduced to 10 men early in the second half yet Hodgsonâ€™s men had to toil away for another 25 minutes before the goal, direct from Wayne Rooneyâ€™s free-kick, that soothed their mood and maintained their immaculate start to this qualifying programme.
There was no doubt they fully deserved the win but it still felt suspiciously like a reality check after the brief surge of new confidence that had accompanied beating Switzerland in their opening game of Group E. Estonia are 81st in Fifaâ€™s world rankings, sandwiched by Saudi Arabia and Antigua and Barbuda, and do not be misled by the statistic that has been churned out over the last few days. They may have lost only one of their previous nine home matches but the opposition on that run included Azerbaijan, Gibraltar and Tajikistan. England were facing moderate opponents and this was a stodgy way of showing the gulf in quality.
They did, however, eventually manage it courtesy of Rooneyâ€™s 73rd-minute free-kick, beating the Estonian goalkeeper, Sergei Pareiko, to move within one goal of emulating Jimmy Greavesâ€™s total of 44 for the national team. Rooney is now five short of Gary Linekerâ€™s 48, and six off equalling Sir Bobby Charltonâ€™s record, and Hodgson ought to be grateful to his captain on a night when England had lacked penetration in attack and there was the slightly strange sub-plot of Raheem Sterling being left out of the starting XI after informing his manager he was â€œa little tiredâ€. Sterling had played only 45 minutes of the 5-0 win against San Marino and it seems unusual for a 19-year-old to be complaining of fatigue not even two weeks into October. He was introduced after 64 minutes and it was a foul on the Liverpool player, just outside the penalty area, that led to the gameâ€™s decisive moment.
Sterling might have had some fun from the start given the way England hogged the ball â€“ the final possession statistics showed 77% in favour of Hodgsonâ€™s men but at times it was even higher â€“ and they certainly missed his speed and directness during those long spells when they pinned back their opponents without being able to make the breakthrough.
His place had gone to Adam Lallana who was predominantly involved at the most forward point of a midfield diamond. Jack Wilshere started in the more withdrawn role, with Fabian Delph and Jordan Henderson providing energy alongside him, in the system that Hodgson first used to good effect during the 2-0 win in Basel last month. Wilshere was more emboldened here, however, to venture into attacking positions. The system lacked natural width but Englandâ€™s full-backs, Calum Chambers and Leighton Baines, had the licence to go forward and, on the whole, there was a reasonably good structure to the team.
Yet England had to be patient. They were clearly the more refined team but, by half-time, Pareiko had hardly been overworked. Wilshereâ€™s clipped through ball gave Rooney a chance that he took on the volley first time, looking for the spectacular, only to flash the shot just over the crossbar. That apart, however, there were only a couple of other half-chances when Estoniaâ€™s goal was genuinely threatened in that period and the odd moment or two when England looked vulnerable on the counterattack. They might also have been seriously embarrassed when the Estonian left-winger, Sergei Zenjov, had the chance to fire in a shot inside the opening minute.
His effort went into the side-netting and England quickly took control of midfield. Wilshere and Henderson were outstanding in those moments but the home side defended stoutly until half-time and they also showed after Ragnar Klavanâ€™s sending-off that they were not simply going to fold because they were a man down.
Klavan had already been booked for a first-half foul on Danny Welbeck and Estoniaâ€™s captain could hardly have expected any leniency from the Croatian referee, Marijo Strahonja, after stepping across Delph to block his run through the home sideâ€™s defence. Rooney curled the free-kick over the crossbar but, after that, Estonia were ripe to be beaten.
England certainly had enough of the ball in the opposition half to think they should have made lighter work of it. Again, though, Pareiko was well protected by his defence. Karol Mets had moved back from midfield to take Klavanâ€™s position and it was tempting to wonder whether Englandâ€™s night would be engulfed in frustration when Chambers picked out Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in the six-yard area and the substitute could not get a clean contact on his header. It followed a pattern: of their 25 attempts, only six were on target.
Hodgson said afterwards he had been contemplating taking off Rooney just before his goal but changed his mind when Welbeck twisted his ankle. Reprieved, Rooney clipped his shot over the wall and was fortunate, perhaps, that Pareiko could only turn it against the inside of the post before it squeezed in, almost in slow motion. England have now put together five clean sheets for the first time since 2006 and Rooney might have pulled level with Greaves if he had been able to beat Pareiko for a second time when he ran clear in the closing moments. Their victory, however, has to be set in context against the standard of opposition. – The Independent