Harry Kane scored twice as England earned a flattering 4-0 win at Malta to close on qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
The visitors were frustrated for much of Friday’s World Cup qualifying Group F encounter at the WTa’ Qali National Stadium against a side that have yet to register a point in the pool.
But Kane made the breakthrough in the 53rd minute with his fourth goal in his past three internationals, providing the finish after Dele Alli’s clever square pass had set up his club colleague.
A workmanlike, at times ugly, victory was secured four minutes from time when Ryan Bertrand found the net for his country for the first time, hitting a long-range shot beyond goalkeeper Andrew Hogg.
Substitute Danny Welbeck added a third in injury time before Kane completed the scoring to round off a victory that was not a fair reflection on the home side’s determined efforts.
England’s highly-paid collection of Premier League stars had struggled to break down a Malta side that had conceded at least two goals in nine of their last 10 World Cup qualifiers.
Still, while the game will not live too long in the memory, the result is all that really mattered for England, who sit two points clear at the summit of Group F ahead of a crucial home clash with nearest rivals Slovakia – who beat Slovenia 1-0 – on Monday.
4 – Harry Kane has now scored four goals in his last three appearances for @England, with all four coming away from home. Opener.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) September 1, 2017
Interim manager when the teams met last October, Gareth Southgate refused to take the Maltese challenge lightly, Jordan Henderson captaining a strong side that included new Liverpool team-mate Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain on the right wing.
England had laboured to a 2-0 win against Malta nearly a year ago, yet could have matched their meagre goal tally at Wembley inside five minutes of the return fixture in Attard.
Hogg had to be alert to deny Raheem Sterling a shooting opportunity in the opening seconds, while the London-born goalkeeper also showed impressive reactions to turn away a firm header from Kane.
Yet after a such a lively start, England laboured for the remainder of the first half, failing to match the tempo set by the incessant supporters’ band inside the ground.
The visitors did have the ball in the net when Phil Jones nodded in a corner from the left, only for the defender’s effort to be ruled out following a foul in the crowded area.
Strong in the tackle and stubborn in defence, Malta were rightly applauded off by their supporters at the break. England, in contrast, left the field to a mixture of groans and boos.
Southgate reacted to a tepid first-half performance by introducing Marcus Rashford, the forward replacing the ineffective Sterling on the left flank.
Malta were the side to threaten a goal first after the break, though, Andre Schembri firing a low shot close enough for goalkeeper Joe Hart to throw himself to his right, albeit the effort ended up going wide.
However, the breakthrough finally arrived for England courtesy of Tottenham’s attacking double act, Alli keeping his composure in a crowded penalty area to allow the supporting Kane to slot low beyond Hogg.
England continued to toil, but Bertrand’s left-footed drive in the 85th minute squeezed under Hogg to put the game beyond Malta.
There was more to come in injury time, as first Welbeck – who replaced Oxlade-Chamberlain – squeezed in front of Hogg to prod home a third, before Kane smashed home from Rashford’s inch-perfect throughball.
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