England 2 Estonia 0: Laboured England do little to inspire confidence
Unlike that trio of crunch fixtures for British sides, the only matter of consequence likely to be decided at Wembley last night was whether Roy Hodgson’s men could claim the victory needed to guarantee a place in the pot of top seeds at December’s draw for the finals.
And even then, had Estonia – whose only point away from home in Group E came in San Marino – achieved the unlikely then a win for Roy Hodgson’s men in Lithuania on Monday night would have still brought that precious place among the elite next summer.
As it was, England didn’t need that second chance in the Baltic region. Instead, goals from Theo Walcott and Raheem Sterling brought the expected victory and a place alongside the likes of hosts France, Germany and Spain in the top bracket of teams in Europe.
Whether they deserve that standing is another thing. Certainly, a qualifying group that has been the very embodiment of weak has not tested Hodgson’s men.
Once the opening fixture in Switzerland had been won 13 months ago, England could as good as book their hotels and training base in France.
The hope – as has been the case for too many years than we all care to remember – is that the Three Lions will roar on the big stage as Hodgson uncovers a formula capable of worrying the continent’s true superpowers.
However, on the evidence of last night’s laboured efforts – and, in all honesty, most games since that humiliating early exit in the 2014 World Cup – that seems a fanciful dream.
Estonia’s second visit to the rebuilt national stadium had been preceded by Sir Bobby Charlton presenting Wayne Rooney with a 24-carat gold boot to mark his recent breaking of the national team’s goalscoring record.
He received a deserved ovation from the 75,427 crowd, showing their appreciation for the seven goals Rooney had scored in eight Euro 2016 qualifiers.
Despite that, there remains a suspicion, fuelled by his form at club level, that the Manchester United man’s best days at the very top level may be behind him.
Certainly, his powers have appeared to be on the wane in a Manchedster United shirt – something that was always a danger considering both Rooney’s early start in the Premier League and his physique.
A return of just two goals in his last 15 league appearances and just one this season is a worry. Rooney’s supporters may point to his two goals for England last month but both were penalties, while his biggest input for United has come via a hat-trick against a weak Club Brugge in the Champions League and a goal against Ipswich Town in the Capital One Cup.
Whether Rooney, now into his 30s, is a player in terminal decline remains to be seen but his absence through injury lent the final home qualifier more than a whiff of an audition for Harry Kane, who filled the central role favoured by England’s captain, and Walcott.
Neither started last month’s double header against San Marino and Switzerland, and if last night was a test as to their suitability to lead the England forward line then it was hard not to feel sorry for both pretenders to Rooney’s throne.
On a night when the Three Lions lacked sufficient creativity to give a side ranked 87th in the world more than a few worrying moments, even the best strikers in the world would have struggled to make an impact.
Walcott, however, did at least get the game’s opening goal thanks to a well-timed run that left a host of blue shirts appealing in vain for offside as he latched on to a Ross Barkley pass.
Stood in five or six yards of space, the Arsenal man – who has excelled up front for his club this term – then showed a deft touch to beat Mihkel Aksalu and set the hosts on their way to a ninth win in as many group outings.
It came with just 22 seconds of normal time remaining in the first half and all but ended any hopes Estonia had of claiming a three points that would have kept alive their own hopes of qualifying.
A side led by Magnus Pehrsson – a one time loanee with Bradford City when Chris Kamara was manager – had threatened briefly before Walcott’s opener as, first, Gary Cahill charged down a shot from Taijo Teniste and then Chris Smalling averted the danger from a drilled cross by Konstantin Vassiljez.
Those two brief forays forward, however, were about as good as it got for Estonia, whose goalkeeper Aksalu had acrobatically kept out an early shot from Walcott.
Once ahead, England could have been expected to relax and put the visitors under increased pressure.
In terms of goalscoring opportunities, the hosts did, indeed, test Aksalu more as the goalkeeper was forced to save bravely twice from Kane and then Barkley before Sterling fired in England’s second five minutes from time.
Even so, this was the flattest of flat endings to a home qualifying campaigns and a contrast to a dramatic previous evening that had seen Northern Ireland qualify, the Republic take a giant stride towards next summer’s finals and Scotland be knocked out by a last gasp equaliser from Poland.
England: Hart; Clyne, Cahill, Smalling, Bertrand; Barkley (Alli 88), Milner, Lallana (Oxlade-Chamberlain 73); Walcott (Vardy 83), Kane, Sterling. Unused substitutes: Butland, Heaton, Walker, Jones, Jagielka, Townsend, Shelvey, Alli, Gibbs.
Estonia: Aksalu; Teniste, Jaager, Klavan, Pikk; Kallaste (Luts 88), Dmitrijev (Lindpere, 70), Mets, Zenjov; Purje (Puri 70), Vassiljev. Unused substitutes: Meerits, Londak, Barengrub, Jurgenson, Gussev, Teever, Antonov, Kams.
Referee: Istvan Vad (Hungary).