REUTERS - England can take a decisive step towards clinching qualification for next year’s World Cup by beating Slovakia at home on Monday although winning over their own supporters may prove a more difficult challenge.
With three games remaining, unbeaten England lead Group F by two points from Slovakia and victory on Monday at Wembley would almost certainly secure at least a play-off spot for next year’s finals in Russia.
But England were flattered by a late flurry of goals in Friday’s 4-0 win in Malta, a performance that was accompanied by expletive-sprinkled jeers from their watching supporters.
No one doubts that Gareth Southgate’s side have talented individuals; the problem is gelling them together.
Two of England’s team against Malta, Kyle Walker and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, moved clubs in deals totalling 90 million pounds ($116.58 million) this summer. Other players are valued even higher, with Harry Kane and Dele Alli expected to command fees approaching 200 million pounds should they leave Tottenham Hotspur.
Despite such riches, England toiled on Friday against modest opposition, who are stranded at the bottom of the group without a point.
“When it comes to something special, we haven’t quite got that,” former England captain Terry Butcher told the BBC.
“Is this England team going to pass you off the pitch? No. Is this England team going to work hard? Yes.
“We have good attacking players but we need someone in the middle of the park who can spray the passes, switch the play quickly and play at a tempo that Gareth likes.”
Oxlade-Chamberlain might have relished that role after stating last week that he was leaving Arsenal for Liverpool in order to play in central midfield.
Yet Southgate played the 24-year-old wide on the right where he impressed with his speed but constantly strayed infield as England failed to stretch the home side.
The introduction of the pacey Marcus Rashford gave England more of an edge in the absence of the injured Adam Lallana and it was no real surprise when they scored three times late on against tiring opponents.
Kane’s two second-half strikes mean he is now top scorer under Southgate with five goals, more than twice as many as any of his team mates.
The striker remains England’s most potent weapon although the search will be stepped up to find a midfielder capable of unlocking defences and provide the service he thrives on.
Neither West Bromwich Albion’s Jake Livermore nor Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson provided the answer and Southgate will regard identifying a skilful midfield controller as a priority, assuming the expected qualification is achieved.
“He hasn’t got the blend of his team right, he hasn’t got the shape of his team right to what he wants, but that requires work,” said Butcher.
Getting that correct blend would no doubt spark the imagination of supporters wearied by years of under-achievement. On Friday, many booed off their own team at half time and others left before the late glut of goals.
The quietly spoken Southgate experienced equal negativity around the national team in his time as a 57-times capped player and called for a measured reaction to the qualifying process.
“I’ve seen it happen (fans turning on the team),” he said, aware that England required a 96th-minute winner from Lallana to beat the Slovakia in last September’s fixture, a game played under previous England manager Sam Allardyce.
“From our point of view, we have to focus on sticking to the plan, staying calm.
“I understand why (it happened). I understand that, if we don’t score until late, the game feels different for everybody.”
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Reporting by Neil Robinson, editing by Pritha Sarkar