Fans often moan that international football is boring, that games are one-sided and that results are predictable.
Those gripes were nowhere to be heard tonight as England and Kosovo served up an absurdly open, seesawing and incident-packed eight-goal thriller at St Mary’s.
It was a crazy Euro 2020 qualifier which had it all, displaying all the potency and excitement of England’s attacking triumvirate of Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jadon Sancho, but also their defensive frailties, disorganisation and naivety, thanks in large part to an expansive, technically sound and ambitious Kosovo side.
Gareth Southgate ultimately got the result he wanted, with England making it four wins out of four in Group A to take a step closer to qualification, and yet the negatives may well weigh heavier than the positives.
Bernard Challandes promised “crazy” pressing from Kosovo but even the animated Swiss head coach couldn’t have envisaged how quickly the tactic would pay off.
Straight from kick-off Ross Barkley and then Michael Keane were rushed into making poor passes, allowing Lazio’s Valon Berisha to coolly slot past Jordan Pickford after just 35 seconds.
Thoughts of Davide Gualtieri’s eight-second effort for San Marino in 1993 came flooding back and although England stormed into a 5-1 lead by half-time they hadn’t got their poor defending out of their system.
After the break Declan Rice gave the ball away at the base of midfield to welcome Vedat Muriqi’s lovely pass into Berisha, who cut inside and found the top corner.
Six minutes later Harry Maguire stood on a cross before fouling Muriqi to concede a needless penalty, which the Fenerbahce striker buried for 5-3, despite Pickford getting two hands onto his spot-kick.
Sterling on another level
Luckily for England’s sometimes hapless defensive unit, they have Sterling at the other end.
The Manchester City forward is operating in the epicentre of a purple patch and appears to be overflowing with confidence every time the ball finds him, which tonight happened with happy regularity.
It was Sterling who made it 1-1, nodding in from the six-yard box after Keane’s header at a corner, and it was he who spun his defender on the halfway line and charged forward 10 minutes later to feed Kane, who powered a left-footed finish underneath Aro Muric.
Sterling ran riot in the first half, gleefully sprinting into the space afforded him, providing another two assists to his opposite winger Sancho to underline his status as one of the hottest attackers in the world right now.
Sancho takes over
Sancho was the beneficiary of one of three changes made by Southgate from Saturday’s 4-0 win over Czech Republic, coming in for Marcus Rashford.
The Borussia Dortmund forward showed the wisdom of that decision, forcing Mergim Vojvoda into scoring an own goal for 3-1 and then netting his first two goals for England from Sterling’s supply line.
The 19-year-old has never looked overawed since his debut in October and he kept a cool head to bury his first before taking up an intelligent position to profit from Sterling’s apparent attempted chip over the goalkeeper for 5-1.
With Southgate appearing to have settled on a 4-3-3 formation, Sancho has a real claim to a starting place ahead of Manchester United’s Rashford, who looks better suited to the central role occupied by captain Kane, who spurned a chance of a second when his second-half penalty was saved by Muric.
England’s qualification for Euro 2020 always looked straightforward when the draw for Group A was made, but there was a worry it could be too easy, with the Three Lions arriving at the tournament next summer undercooked after coasting through.
Kosovo have emerged as the next best side and they lived up to the billing, highlighting cracks in England’s backline and midfield.
The visitors’ heavy press brought nerves to the fore, with the core of the side each making costly mistakes.
With his side crumbling under the pressure Southgate was forced to hold fire on any changes, waiting until the 83rd minute before bringing on Mason Mount for Barkley.
England know they were tested, know they wilted, and know they will have to be much better when the tournament finally rolls around on 12 June.
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