The most remarkable statistic attached to this victory is that England, for all their traumas and intermittent crises, have now gone 34 matches since they experienced defeat in a qualifying match. The last occasion was October 2009 when Fabio Capello’s team went down 1-0 to Ukraine in Dnipropetrovsk and, to put it into context, there have been three different full-time managers since then.
A record of that nature can seem like a deception sometimes given what usually then happens at the actual tournaments but in the preliminaries England’s results continue to attract large, cheerful crowds –close to 78,000 here – and for the most part they send the fans away without too many grievances.
Their latest assignment was another win of drowsy inevitability against moderate opponents who seemed happy enough just to keep the score respectable.
Lithuania looked what they are: a team 107th in Fifa’s world rankings, tucked in directly behind Mauritania and Mozambique, and it almost came as a surprise that England restricted themselves to only one more goal, courtesy of the substitute Jamie Vardy, after Jermain Defoe had marked his return to the international setup by scoring midway through the first half.
For that, Defoe earned himself the official man of the match award and he can reflect on a satisfying evening’s work featuring his first England goal since March 2013. The last one came against San Marino although Defoe, 35 later this year, has been around the block long enough to know international football is not always this easy. His goal heremade him the sixth oldest scorer in England’s history, with only Stanley Matthews, Tom Finney, Teddy Sheringham, Frank Lampard and Jack Charlton above him on the list.
Lithuania’s only victories over the past three years have come against San Marino, Malta, Estonia and Finland and, if nothing else, they coped better than their last visit to Wembley, when they lost 4-0. “We had a chance to score a goal against such a strong team,” their manager, Edgaras Jankauskas, said afterwards, as though it was scarcely believable. “We had quite a good game, by our standards.”
They actually managed three attempts at England’s goal – two more than the previous occasion – and Joe Hart did get a few scuffs of grass on his kit on the way to registering the 40th clean sheet of his international career.
Hart duly moves alongside David Seaman in joint-second in the all-time list, 26 short of Peter Shilton’s record, though he did stray dangerously close to a moment of personal embarrassment on the stroke of half-time.
Fortunately for England’s goalkeeper, John Stones was well positioned to clear the danger after a long kick out had been headed all the way back towards Hart’s penalty area. Vykintas Slivka, the nearest player to England’s goal, was offside by some distance but the flag never went up and Hart, rushing out in a state of apparent confusion, misjudged a bouncing ball. Slivka’s header had gone past the oncoming goalkeeper and would have bounced in had Stones not run back to spare his team-mate.
That apart, there was little to trouble Hart on a day when he was given the captaincy. England are now the only team in the entire World Cup qualifying programme not to concede a goal and Michael Keane, having made an accomplished debut against Germany on Wednesday, fully justified his selection again.
True, Lithuania were obliging opponents but the Burnley defender played with an assuredness that will surely keep him prominently in Gareth Southgate’s thoughts, no matter how many of the missing centre-halves are available for the Group F game against Scotland on 10 June.
Southgate will also hope to have Harry Kane and Daniel Sturridge available again by then and the England manager insists the door has not been shut on Wayne Rooney, despite the evidence to the contrary. Yet Defoe is entitled to think he has done his own chances the power of good when it comes to the selection process for the trip to Hampden Park, followed by the friendly against France in Paris three days later.
Defoe’s goal came after 21 minutes and as well as being a reminder of his penalty-box expertise, it also owed heavily to Raheem Sterling’s ability to turn past defenders in key positions. Sterling’s darting run deceived one opponent and his low, precise delivery from the left beat two others. Defoe was just outside the six-yard area and side-footed a rising shot into the top corner of Ernestas Setkus’s goal.
After that England always seemed in control, with Kyle Walker and Ryan Bertrand advancing from their full-back positions and Adam Lallana orchestrating a lot of the team’s more impressive work. Southgate had selected Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain to play alongside Eric Dier in central midfield and the Arsenal man had a lot of the ball. The time to judge him at this level, perhaps, is when or if he gets this opportunity against a better side.
The same applies to the team as a whole but an unbeaten run in qualifying matches, stretching back over seven and a half years, was never going to be threatened here. Marcus Rashford was lively when he came on and Vardy, with a right-foot finish, made certain of the victory after Lallana’s delicate touch had freed him inside the penalty area.