England all but 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 had some anxious moments in between.
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. They now need only a point against North Macedonia on Monday to be sure of being in Pot 1 — though their superior goal difference means it’s now almost assured.
“It was a game when we didn’t start well and if you don’t start well it’s hard to pick the game up,” Southgate said.
“These players have played so many games and have done so well for us so I am not going to hammer them for it. We weren’t where we should be but we got the win.”
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.
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.
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 buildup to the finals.
Reuters contributed to this report.