LONDON – England ensured a top seeding at Euro 2024 with a laboured 2-0 home victory against Group C makeweights Malta on Friday that will not live long in the memory of an underwhelmed Wembley crowd.
Until the 75th minute all that separated Gareth Southgate’s lacklustre side from 171st-ranked Malta was an early own goal by Enrico Pepe and they endured some anxious moments in between.
Captain Harry Kane finally doubled England’s lead with his 62nd goal for his country after good work by Bukayo Saka before Declan Rice had an effort ruled out for offside.
There was precious little to get enthused about though as several England fringe players wasted the chance to make a statement of intent to Southgate.
England had already qualified for next year’s finals in Germany and victory over Malta ensured they will win Group C, regardless of what happens in North Macedonia on Monday.
They have 19 points from their seven games with Italy, who beat North Macedonia, and Ukraine on 13.
Southgate will rightly say the hard work had already been done with impressive home and away victories over European champions Italy enabling his side to dominate the group.
He will also point to the likes of Jude Bellingham not being available for their final qualifying games because of injury.
But there is no getting away from the fact his players should have found it much easier to put away a gutsy Malta side who had no points and only two goals in the group.
With several of his first-choice players on the bench, England were tepid in a first half in which Malta had more goal attempts, looked more energetic and could count themselves rather unfortunate to be behind.
Right from the start the hosts were sloppy and a loose pass by Conor Gallagher gave Malta’s Teddy Teuma a chance in the opening minute which he fired wide.
England went ahead in the eighth minute thanks to a slice of fortune as Phil Foden’s cut back cannoned off the covering Pepe and into the net despite a valiant effort by Malta keeper Henry Bonello to keep it out.
Harry Maguire’s awful pass soon afterwards offered Malta another chance but Paul Mbong blazed his shot over.
Kane was then booked for diving despite contact from Bonello after nudging the ball past the keeper — referee Luis Godinho deciding Kane had deliberately trailed his leg to buy a penalty.
Bonello was not troubled again by a pedestrian England before halftime as the home crowd began to entertain themselves by flying paper aeroplanes on to the Wembley turf.
Gallagher and Fikayo Tomori were both replaced at halftime with Bukayo Saka and Kyle Walker coming on but things hardly improved with Marcus Rashford’s collision with team mate Trent Alexander-Arnold summing up a disjointed display.
The biggest cheer of the game greeted the arrival of Chelsea youngster Cole Palmer off the bench for his first cap, replacing Rashford, with Rice replacing ineffective Jordan Henderson.
Kane ensured the victory with a simple finish but it was a desperately flat performance by England who will find out much more about themselves with friendlies against Belgium and Brazil next year in the build-up to the finals. REUTERS