England swaggered into the 2022 World Cup finals by hitting 10 against 10-man San Marino in their biggest ever win in a competitive match on a night when it all went right for Gareth Southgate.
Harry Kane plundered a morale-boosting four-goal haul and wrote more entries in the England record books, Emile Smith Rowe shone on his first international start, and Trent Alexander-Arnold showed his potential in national colours, providing three second-half assists.
San Marino were dreadful, living up to their billing as the world’s lowest ranked nation, but a year out from the Qatar World Cup England despatched them with an efficiency that underlined they will be among the contenders.
Finishing as the leading scorers in European qualifying, they might even have silenced some who complain Southgate is too defensive.
Kane hits more England milestones
Southgate admitted after Kane had bagged a hat-trick against Albania on Friday that the striker did not want to be rested in San Marino, where more goals beckoned.
He got his wish on both counts, leading the line despite a shuffled XI featuring seven changes, and duly filled his boots to rack up yet more records and inch further up England’s all-time record scorers’ list.
The visitors were already two up when Kane netted his first of the evening, a penalty after Dante Carlos Rossi handled Phil Foden’s wayward scissor kick.
He added a slightly scuffed, first-time hit from Emile Smith Rowe’s clipped cross and another penalty for handball to make it consecutive first-half trebles, and then meandered through San Marino’s shambolic defence to slot a fourth and become the first England player to reach that milestone since Ian Wright, against the same opponents, in 1993.
Kane now boasts 48 international goals, as many as Gary Lineker and just five shy of Wayne Rooney. He is also the first to score more than 12 for England in a calendar year. He still looks slightly sluggish, but this can only help him build on his solitary Premier League goal this season.
Smith Rowe shines on first start
It’s been quite the week for Smith Rowe. Initially left out of the squad by Southgate, he was drafted in last Monday to provide extra cover, came off the bench for a debut on Friday and here marked his first senior international start with a goal.
The Arsenal man – deployed here, as at his club, on the left of a three-man attack – linked up intuitively with team-mate and fellow Hale End graduate Bukayo Saka to provide England with a steady stream of first-half chances.
Smith Rowe, who has scored in his last three club appearances, set up Kane for his second before getting on the scoresheet himself in the second half, tucking in at the near post after substitute Tammy Abraham’s cute lay-off from Saka’s cross.
But for a glut of injuries he might not have got his chance, but he is now another addition to an increasingly ludicrous array of riches Southgate can select from in attack that also includes Foden, Raheem Sterling, Jack Grealish, Jadon Sancho, Mason Mount and Saka.
Job done for England and Southgate
It might not have been mathematically assured until the final round of fixtures, but England’s qualification for next year’s World Cup as Group I winners rarely, if ever, looked in doubt.
While some of Europe’s biggest nations – Spain and Croatia – made hard work of topping their groups and others – Euro 2020 winners Italy, Portugal – were edged into a runner-up spot and the jeopardy of a one-legged play-off, Southgate steered his team through without drama.
It would have been wrapped up earlier but for the late equaliser conceded in Poland in September and a questionable penalty given to Hungary last month, and the presence of two whipping boys in Andorra and San Marino making it easier for the Poles to keep pace.
As it was, England managed to control their campaign, avoid a hangover from their own European Championship and test out new tactics and personnel. Job done; the countdown to Qatar starts here.