GARETH SOUTHGATE, as he made clear in the wake of last Friday’s stinging criticism from the terraces during the laboured victory over Malta, is not the Messiah.
What followed last night was more mess than Messiah, at least initially as England were left cursing Marcus Rashford after the very naughty boy had gifted Slovakia a goal that meant the initiative in World Cup qualifying from Group F had swung the way of Jan Kozak’s men.
By full-time, however, the country fervently believed once again in the hugely talented Manchester United youngster after he, first, created Eric Dier’s equaliser and then netted what proved to be the winner in sublime fashion.
Rashford’s transformation from zero to hero inside less than an hour under the Wembley Arch means the Three Lions are this morning within touching distance of guaranteeing their place at next summer’s finals.
Two draws from the final two group games at home to Slovenia and then away in Lithuania will be enough to win the group, regardless of how their rivals get on.
Russia, therefore, awaits. As for how Southgate’s men will fare behind the old Iron Curtain, maybe those who make the trip might consider adopting ‘Always look on the bright side of life’ – the signature tune from the Life of Brian film that spawned the classic line ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!’ – as the soundtrack of next summer.
Certainly, on this evidence, the cream of world football will have little to fear from England. Even leaving aside the awful early error that gifted Slovakia the lead on 153 seconds, the hosts produced a mixed performance at best.
Once level through Dier shortly before half-time, England were the better side and deserved their victory.
But there were still far too many basic errors made by the home side and had referee Clement Turpin shown Kyle Walker the red card his woefully-timed attempted tackle on Vladimir Weiss in first-half stoppage time deserved rather than waved play on, the night could have ended very differently.
What must also have concerned Southgate was how easily Marek Hamsik and Stanislav Lobotka had been able to dominate proceedings until Dier swept in Rashford’s corner eight minutes before the break to cancel out the early opener.
Rashford’s transformation from zero to hero inside less than an hour under the Wembley Arch means the Three Lions are this morning within touching distance of guaranteeing their place at next summer’s finals.The YP’s Richard Sutcliffe
It didn’t help, of course, that England were on the back foot from the start courtesy of Rashford’s naivety. Collecting the ball 30 yards from the England goal, he almost lost possession to Tomas Hubocan after unwisely trying to nutmeg the Slovak defender only for the bounce of the ball to be kind.
His good fortune, though, did not last and, just a moment later, Lobotka had whipped the ball off the Manchester United man’s toe.
A quick pass inside to Adam Nemec and Lobotka was off, darting into the home penalty area at speed as Rashford hesitated before finally attempting to track back.
It meant, as Nemec’s delightful chipped return pass landed behind the static England backline, a player who had starred in this year’s European Under-21s Championships was through on goal.
Joe Hart rushed from his line but Lobotka had little trouble in putting the visitors ahead.
It was the first goal conceded at Wembley in seven qualifiers by the Three Lions. For a time, a near 10-year unbeaten record on home soil in qualifying also seemed under threat with it taking until well past the half-hour mark for England to regain any kind of rhythm.
These struggles were perhaps best epitomised by the 15th minute melee from a corner that saw Jan Durica fall over inside the six-yard box after failing to connect with an attempted clearance and yet still the hosts couldn’t take advantage.
Once level, however, England were transformed as Rashford, whose quick thinking had ensured Dier’s dart to the front post brought the equaliser, and Ryan Bertrand both tested Martin Dubravka before half-time.
Walker, admittedly, got lucky as Turpin missed his foul on Weiss to leave any Slovakians familiar with highwayman legend in this country wondering if the official was a distant relative of namesake Dick.
But the second half belonged to England, as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Rashford tested Dubravka once again.
Harry Kane then saw a shot turned away from goal and behind the onrushing Dele Alli before Rashford’s moment of true redemption for his earlier mistake arrived just before the hour.
A mistake by Slovakia saw possession gifted to Alli, who quickly found Jordan Henderson. The Three Lions captain, in turn, found Rashford 25 yards out.
The visitors were slow to react to the danger, allowing Rashford to turn smartly before drilling a shot across Dubravka and into the net.
England: Hart; Walker, Cahill, Jones, Bertrand; Henderson, Dier; Oxlade-Chamberlain (Sterling 82), Alli (Livermore 90), Rashford (Welbeck 83); Kane. Unused substitutes: Heaton, Smalling, Butland, Cresswell, Keane, Stones, Chalobah, Sturridge, Vardy.
Slovakia: Dubravka; Pekarik, Skrtel, Durica, Hubocan; Skriniar, Lobotka; Weiss (Rusnak 68), Hamsik (Duda 79), Mak; Nemec (Duris 68). Unused substitutes: Novota, Gyomber, Gregus, Mihalik, Polacek, Hrosovsky, Mazan, Sabo, Kucka.
Referee: Clement Turpin (France).