Big match verdict: England labour but get job done against Lithuania ahead of meeting with Scotland

Eric Dier, left, and Adam Lallana congratulate Jermain Defoe after he had put England in front against Lithuania (Picture: PA).
Eric Dier, left, and Adam Lallana congratulate Jermain Defoe after he had put England in front against Lithuania (Picture: PA).
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LET’ US, for the moment, set aside England’s risible recent record at major tournaments.

In qualifying football, the Three Lions have been a team in a hurry who opponents find hard to stop.

Having booked a place at Euro 2016 with a perfect 10 victories, the national side are once again firmly on course to reach next year’s World Cup.

Thirteen points at the halfway stage and no goals conceded – the only remaining European country boasting such a record – means it is surely a case of when and not if Gareth Southgate’s side book a safe passage to Russia.

Kind draws have helped, of course. As with the last qualifying cycle, this is a pretty wretched group with Slovenia, ranked 58th in the world by FIFA, looking the country most likely to earn a play-off place via runners-up spot.

But, a team can only beat what is in front of them and, in that respect, England are dispatching the hotchpotch of footballing also-rans that make up the rest of Group F.

And, while Southgate’s men toiled before seeing off a limited if hard-working Lithuanian outfit, the victory had become comfortable long before the final whistle.

Jermain Defoe and Jamie Vardy found the net and were the big winners on an evening when proceedings had the air of a testimonial, such was the lack of urgency at times.

Raheem Sterling also looked dangerous when running at the visitors during a lively first-half display, while Michael Keane stepped in admirably for his competitive debut alongside John Stones, and Adam Lallana caused problems.

Even these contributions, though, were steady rather than spectacular against a visiting side whose only win this season came at the expense of minnows Malta.

As for the rest, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain may well have played his way out of contention for a starting place with England.

Charged with sitting in front of the back four alongside Eric Dier, he looked spectacularly ill-equipped for such a role.

The Arsenal man was sloppiness personified, particularly during an opening 45 minutes when he continually gifted possession to the visitors.

Dier was not much better, while Joe Hart, despite having little to do, came very close to being embarrassed by the quick thinking of Nerijus Valskis in first-half stoppage-time to suggest maybe Pep Guardiola knew what he was doing when jettisoning the England goalkeeper last summer.

Plenty, therefore, for Southgate to ponder between now and his side’s next outing against Scotland at Hampden Park on June 10.

Certainly, amid what is likely to be a crackling atmosphere north of the Border, England will have to have more about them than what was needed to see off Lithuania.

As was to be expected considering the limited ambitions of the Baltic country, the hosts dominated possession due to Lithuania retreating so deep at times that goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus had to nudge a couple of team-mates forward as they strayed into his territory.

For much of a dour contest, the hosts failed to make this dominance pay.

A tendency to take three or four touches when one would have sufficed was a problem, as was a lack of tempo and their passing radar being slightly off.

In and among this mediocrity, however, were moments of inspiration and the opening goal on 21 minutes came during just such a passage of play.

Defoe, recalled due to Southgate believing he was the ideal man to unlock an ultra defensive visiting side, justified his manager’s faith with a typically predatory finish.

Sterling created the opening, his forceful run leaving Egidijus Vaitkunas trailing horribly in the wake of the Manchester City winger as he darted towards the goal-line.

His drilled cross then took Linas Klimavicius out of the equation to leave Defoe, displaying that unerring knack of being in the right place at the right time, with a chance the Sunderland striker was not going to pass up.

Defoe’s 20th international goal made up for the frustration of having been denied a header at goal just couple of minutes earlier by a timely flick to safety from Vaitkunas.

Once ahead, the hosts relaxed and Defoe dragged a shot wide from 20 yards before the arrival of Lithuania’s one moment of threat in the first half.

Valskis, despite being stood at least three yards offside when reacting to a towering header from Linas Limavicius, was allowed to play on and beat Hart to the bouncing ball only for Stones to avert the danger by clearing inside the six-yard box.

Any hopes that the 800 or so travelling fans had that this might point to their side getting back into the contest proved wide of the mark, albeit only after Arvydas Novikovas had warmed the hands of Hart with a drilled effort seven minutes after the restart.

Vardy’s composed finish following neat inter-play between Kyle Walker and Adam Lallana ended any Lithuanian resistance midway through the second half.

The former FC Halifax Town striker then had an opportunity to claim his seventh international goal 10 minutes from time, but his lobbed shot from 15 yards flew harmlessly over the crossbar.

This was the cue for many in the 77,690 crowd to head for the exits in an attempt to beat the rush for the Tube.

They did so knowing that Southgate’s side are, once again, well on their way to a major finals.

On yesterday’s evidence, however, next year’s World Cup is when the all-too-familiar problems for a Three Lions side that remains average at best are likely to be exposed once again.