WATCH: England remain work in progress as World Cup kick-off edges closer
WARM-UP games before a big tournament can be a notoriously unreliable gauge as to how things will pan out once the action turns serious.
England’s victory over Portugal just eight days before Euro 2016 kicked off is proof of that, Cristiano Ronaldo and his pals going on to lift the trophy a little over a month later as the Three Lions slunk off home following a humiliating exit to Iceland.
With that in mind, reading too much into the penultimate friendly for Gareth Southgate’s men ahead of the World Cup was always going to be a risk.
But, thanks to a performance of two halves from Nigeria, a Wembley crowd of 70,025 learned even less that anticipated from a victory secured by first half goals from Gary Cahill and Harry Kane other than the Three Lions remain very much a work in progress.
Going forward, there was cause for cautious optimism during a first half in which the home side looked the real deal.
With wing-backs Kieran Trippier and Ashley Young getting forward at every opportunity and the midfield belonging to England, the visitors found it so difficult to escape their own territory that Jordan Pickford was little more than an interested observer during those opening 45 minutes.
The link-up play between Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli and Kane was a joy to watch and it was no wonder that Southgate headed back down the tunnel at the interval with a broad smile on his face.
By full time, the England manager still looked the happier of the two managers. His team had won, after all.
But the ease with which Nigeria, following four changes made at the interval by Gernot Rohr along with a switch of formation, had caught England on the hop hardly boded well for the stiffer challenges that lay ahead.
Alex Iwobi pulled a goal back just two minutes after the restart to spark a wobble that better teams than the Super Eagles would surely have exploited as containment, rather than the positive mindset of the first half, became the order of the day for the hosts.
As it was, England held on. They could have even added another goal in the closing stages and Southgate, for all the problems caused by Nigeria stepping up a couple of gears, bid farewell to Wembley in a content mood.
“The first half was as good a half as we have had,” said the Three Lions chief. “There was a lot of unselfish one and two-touch play. Our play from the back had good composure.
“We didn’t come to terms with their change in formation and work out their midfield quickly enough. We were a bit slow to react at the back and then it was a really good test for us.
“But we have to learn from that five or six minute spell because, in a tournament, that is enough to put you out.”
Much of the focus ahead of Nigeria’s first visit to the rebuilt Wembley had centred on Sterling. First, there was the social media post that revealed the tattoo of a rifle on his right leg.
As anti-gun campaigners piled in to criticise the Manchester City winger, the man himself quickly defended the design.
Not only was the artwork unfinished, Sterling pointed out, but it was meant as a tribute to his father, who had been fatally shot in Jamaica when the winger was a youngster.
Southgate also defended his player but the Three Lions chief had been less enamoured the previous week when Sterling had returned to the camp 12 hours late following a holiday.
Regardless of the reason – he missed a connecting flight in Miami en route to England from a holiday in the Caribbean – Sterling realised he owed a big performance to not only Southgate but also the team-mates he had already apologised to.
He partly made amends with a vibrant first half showing but could still not add the end product that can make the difference between a prolonged run in the World Cup and an early exit.
Time and time again, Sterling’s pace would take him into dangerous positions only for the required finish to elude him.
Never was this more apparent than when he spun William Troost-Ekong to race clear before dinking a shot over goalkeeper Francis Uzoho and wide of the post.
Two other gilt-edged opportunities came and went for Sterling, later booked for an embarrassing dive, thanks to a left foot that was more water pistol than the M16 rifle that now adorns his right leg in ink.
In contrast to this profligacy, Kane had one chance and he took it, albeit with the help of Uzoho, the Nigeria goalkeeper somehow managing to allow the ball to pass under his body when it looked easier to save an admittedly well struck shot.
That came six minutes before the break to cap a first half that had seen Cahill put the hosts in front early on.
Kieran Trippier’s corner was an inviting one and Cahill, after getting away from Troost-Ekong, did the delivery justice with a bullet header that gave Uzoho no chance.
Cahill’s first goal, for either club or country, in 13 months was well timed as it seems a straight scrap between the Chelsea defender and Harry Maguire for a place in a three-man defence that seems certain to include John Stones and Kyle Walker.
Walker, however, was not quite so impressive. He was caught out when Rohr’s side reduced the arrears early in the second half after not getting tight enough to Odion Ighalo.
His subsequent shot against the post was then latched on to by Iwobi, who gave Pickford no chance with a firmly struck rebound.
Suddenly, the already boisterous 12,000 strong travelling army of Nigerians sensed a famous fightback was on but it was not to be as England bid farewell to Wembley with a win.