By England Correspondent Adam Williams, in Pristina
In their last competitive match before the European Championships next summer, England overcame their Kosovan hosts, scoring four goals without reply to take their tally up to 38 over the course of the qualifying campaign. In a relatively drab affair, the three goals England scored in the last 11 minutes put a deceptive gloss on an otherwise tepid Three Lions performance.
Regardless of the result for plaudit-pulling Kosovo, this was a parade– the grandest occasion, if not the most significant, in their short footballing history – and that was before the violinist appeared to perform their national anthem. Bernard Challandes’ side knew before kick-off that they couldn’t qualify tonight, though they still might through the play-offs. But over the course of this qualification campaign the newly-recognised nation has won admirers across the continent, ourselves included. The Swiss coach’s pro-active strategy is as far removed from the ascetic football favoured by many of his contemporaries as is imaginable. They will remember the past 12 months as their quant um leap whether they reached the promised land of major tournament football or not.
England on the other hand will likely remember it as just another mouse-wheel qualifying campaign, they went very fast but didn’t really go anywhere or learn too much. Deficiencies remain, even if the wounds weren’t opened tonight – there are still questions for Southgate.
Tonight, Harry Winks provided a possible answer, scoring England’s first and efficiently pulling the levers in midfield alongside Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The revitalised Liverpool dynamo was encouraging too, providing the decisive pass for the opener and generally offsetting his midfield partner’s ball-circulatory role with his own blood-and-thunder approach.
Courtesy of an over-watered pitch, three players lost their footing in the opening two minutes. The cliché demands that these environmental factors suit the underdog. But given that England were the more likely to capitalise on any opposition slips and that Kosovo weren’t playing the typical hoof-ball of a team sat in 114th place in the World Rankings, this wasn’t necessarily the case as the hosts would find out to their cost in injury time.
The locals’ support for England was warm but paled in comparison next to the guttural, bombastic Balkan fervour the Kosovans worked up in support of their heroes. It was momentarily abated in the 31st minute when Winks became the second England player in as many games to open their international account – with a third to follow later in the match. A number 6 wearing number 10 finishing like a number 9, Winks’ supreme touch dissected the two Kosovo centre-halves before he calmly slipped the ball past Arijanet Muric.
In narrative terms, the most significant facet of the starting line-up was Raheem Sterling’s inclusion, his first since scratch-gate. Away from the eternally-baffling Wembley crowd, it was hard to gauge whether there would be a backlash to the Joe Gomez boos we heard on Thursday evening. Sterling, who is without peer in his position at the moment, was uncharacteristically quiet for long periods tonight.
But such is his now undeniable prowess, even on a quasi-off-day, the Manchester City winger registered two assists. Springing past his man in the 79th minute, his looping cross found Harry Kane at the back post who predictably dispatched. It was the forward’s 12thgoal in eight European Championship qualifiers and one that continued his extraordinary record of having scored in every one of England’s games in the competition.
An oncoming substitute in the 83rd minute, Marcus Rashford was the beneficiary of Sterling’s second helping-hand. Running at a hastily-retreating Kosovo back-line, England’s number 7 slipped the ball into the path of the Manchester United forward who steered the ball emphatically home.
The ruthlessness of England’s forwards felt almost embarrassing in light of Kosovo’s hospitality towards them over the past few days. But even more brutal was the fashion in which England scored their fourth. In nightmarish slow-motion, Ibrahim Dresevic slipped on the edge of his area. Kane seized control of the ball. He laid it off to Mason Mount, who scored his first Three Lions goal after having one incorrectly disallowed on Thursday evening.
Kosovo had their moments in the first half but did not provide the same level of breathless excitement that 99was present in the reverse fixture at St Marys. As Bernard Challandes reminded journalists in his post-match press-conference, this was England’s 1001stinternational, it was Kosovo’s 31st. Ultimately, they are yet another example of opposition in qualifying that have been a far from reliable litmus test for potential England success in the summer.