He may not be the most exciting manager that England have ever had nestle a pair of buttocks into one of those luxurious Recaro seats in the Wembley dugouts, but Gareth Southgate looks to have guided The Three Lions to next year’s World Cup in Russia regardless. And with some ease. Okay, it’s not always been scintillating and no one’s getting too excited because England always walk their groups, but hey – let’s look on the bright side, eh?
A victory against Slovenia on Thursday evening or Lithuania on Sunday afternoon and England are guaranteed their place at the top table come next summer. And rightfully so. It’s not been pure domination from the English in Group F, but with 20 points earned from a possible 24 up until now, it’s not been far off it.
England’s qualifying campaign started some 13 months ago, with eight games since then. Here’s the tale of England’s 2018 World Cup qualifying campaign for you. Alongside every single one of the goals…
Slovakia 0 – 1 England, 4th September 2016
It took a 95th minute goal from Liverpool’s Adam Lallana, but England got off to a winning start to their campaign in Slovakia. It was to the be the first and only win/game in Sam Allardyce’s hilariously brief tenure as England boss. What with him getting the elbow shortly afterwards for his part in just one of the many scandals that has dogged the English game in the past couple of years. Still, he’s got a 100% win rate at international level. Not bad.
In truth, England should have won this game by more. A foul on Harry Kane in the 57th minute saw the opposition’s talismanic ex-Kop favourite Martin Skrtel sulk off for an early bath. So Slovakia spent more than a third of the game with ten men. But the whole thing was a bit of a slog for the away side, who needed a goal from a man who hadn’t scored in 26 previous attempts at international level to eventually bag them the three points in Trnava.
England 2 – 0 Malta, 8th October 2016
Allardyce out the door, the tiny island nation of Malta were to be Gareth Southgate’s first test as ‘interim’ manager. We all knew that The FA would give Mr. Safe Hands the job in the long run and hosting one of the lowest ranked teams in Europe is a nice little introduction. Although you’d be expecting a minimum or four or five goals. And the Wembley crowd certainly did. They got, instead, only two.
Daniel Sturridge and Dele Alli got the goals, Jordan Henderson put in a man of the match performance and there was a surprise debut for Manchester United forward Jesse Lingard. In truth, it was a dominant display. But against a team ranked 176th in the world by FIFA, you’d want to hitting more than a couple past them at home. That said, it was six points out of six after two games. Onwards and upwards. Right?
Slovenia 0 – 0 England, 11th October 2016
Onwards and upwards… Well, not exactly. The first dropped points of the campaign came just three days after the Malta win in what was a goalless stalemate in Slovenia. He may be ‘under-fire’ Joe Hart now (and was even then), but without the ex-Man City stopper, England would have come home from their trip without a point. Two fine stops from Atalanta’s Josip Iličić saved his new manager’s blushes.
Three years of qualifying wins came to an end that night. The grumbling about the new man in the dugout began. And so did the questions. Was he tactically too safe? Should he have dropped Wayne Rooney? Will we ever really forgive him for that Pizza Hut ad?
England 3 – 0 Scotland, 11th November 2016
Now we’re talking. Three goals and three points against our neighbours, the Scottish. Goals from Sturridge, Lallana and Cahill eased the small pressure already on the new boss, but increased the pressure on the man in the other hot seat, Gordon Strachan.
It was a comfortable ninety minutes for England, this. And proved to be a fillip after the disappointment of the result a month before. This was proven by the lively 2-2 friendly draw with Spain played out a couple of days later (a game England were winning until a gutting 96th minute Isco strike).
England 2 – 0 Lithuania, 26th March 2017
Back in from the cold (literally, he lived in Sunderland at the time), 34 year-old Jermain Defoe was back on the teamsheet and back on the scoreboard for England. A resurgence in form since his return from the MLS saw England take a chance on the little man upfront. And it took just 21 minutes for him to repay the faith shown in him. It was a goal scored a full four years after his last international strike.
A 66th minute effort from Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy made it two. This was the first game for Southgate at Wembley as The Three Lions’ full-time manager. He’d passed the test he couldn’t really fail.
Scotland 2 – 2 England, 10th June 2017
The game of the qualifiers, without a doubt. If you’ve seen a better finale to a match than this, then, well… You’re a liar. Scottish fans won’t have enjoyed the final seconds, but wow… It was incredible. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain put England a goal up with only 20 minutes to go. England tightened up, most viewers assumed that was how it would stay. But they couldn’t have been more wrong.
17 minutes later, Celtic’s Leigh Griffiths took and scored a magnificent free kick from range. Three minutes later he did exactly the same thing again. It was spectacular. England fans were deflated. But not for very long. Three minutes later, deep into injury time, first choice striker (and captain) Harry Kane capped off another fine showing with an equalising volley. Cue ‘scenes’.
Malta 0 – 4 England, 1st September 2017
Only just over a month ago, Gareth Southgate and his men got a chance to show the world that they could give the Maltese a whoppin’ when they wanted to. And, thanks to a brace from Harry Kane and late efforts from Ryan Bertrand and Danny Welbeck, they kind of did. But at 84 minutes, it was just 1-0.
England 2 – 1 Slovakia, 4th September 2017
72 hours after the four goal win in Ta’ Qali, England welcomed Slovakia and home fans were excited to see what Marcus Rashford could do after a good start in the league for Manchester United. It turned out that he could sloppily concede possession within three minutes and hand the visitors an early lead through Stanislav Lobotka.
However, the youngster didn’t let that worry him and he recovered brilliantly and went on to inspire a comeback. Just before halftime he whipped in a smart near-post corner than was seized upon by Eric Dier and the two teams went in for oranges – or whatever it is they eat at half time now – the spoils shared.
Fifteen minutes after the restart, the 19 year-old hit the winner. England are now on the brink on qualifying for World Cup 2018. All they need is a win this week…
Come on, England!