England boss Gareth Southgate believes he witnessed signs of his Three Lions crop coming of age after their comeback win over Slovakia moved them to within touching distance of next summer’s World Cup finals.
Manchester United’s teenage forward Marcus Rashford redeemed his earlier mistake, which led to Stanislav Lobotka’s opener for Slovakia, by netting the decisive strike after Eric Dier had hauled England level.
Victory propelled England five points clear of second-placed Slovakia in Group F with two qualification matches to play. Maximum points at home to Slovenia next month would seal England’s place at next year’s tournament in Russia.
The backdrop to the fixture was England’s underwhelming showing against Malta on Friday – a performance which drew jeers and condemnation from sections of the travelling support – and a pressure to make a retaliatory on-field statement.
“It’s been a big week for them,” said Southgate.
“To go through the experience they had on Friday, live with a little of the spotlight that you get as an England player and then respond to going behind in a game where the crowd could have turned, we had to show resilience and good tactical reactions.
“For what is still an incredibly young starting team, those are good experiences to go through provided you win as it starts to build belief. This was a really important step.”
Perhaps nobody epitomised Southgate’s growing belief in his charges than Rashford. “He is such a mature character,” added the former Middlesbrough and England Under-21 manager.
“You look at him and he is never in awe of the occasion, he doesn’t have any fear.”
Southgate, however, was forced to play down an incident involving Dele Alli in which the Tottenham midfielder made a one-fingered gesture, initially thought to be in the direction of referee Clement Turpin, in the 76th minute.
Southgate subsequently suggested that Alli was aiming the salute at former club-mate Kyle Walker.
“Kyle and Dele were mucking about and Dele’s made a gesture towards Kyle,” said Southgate.
“The pair of them have a strange way of communicating, but that’s what they’ve said when it’s been raised. For me, what it does is detract from what is his [Alli’s] best performance for us since I’ve been manager.”
Hopes of an early nerve-settling tonic were punctured within three minutes as Rashford lost possession and a canny, dinked pass from Adam Nemec was controlled and stroked beyond England goalkeeper Joe Hart by Lobotka.
At that stage England had been knocked off top spot in Group F and were potentially looking at a play-off to secure World Cup qualification, although parity and a surge of relief was forthcoming prior to half-time.
England had failed to force Slovakia stopper Martin Dubravka into meaningful employment before Rashford’s low, near-post corner in the 37th minute was flicked home from the edge of the six-yard box by Dier.
The Three Lions winner arrived shortly before the hour mark as Rashford collected Jordan Henderson’s pass and, as space opened up, crashed a 20-yard shot across Dubravka and into the bottom corner of his net.