Marcus Rashford takes his chance as England come back to beat Slovakia
LONDON -- England made heavy work of Slovakia but came from behind to win 2-1. Here are three quick thoughts from Monday's World Cup qualifier at Wembley.
1. England get job done, but bigger tests await in Russia
If England are good at one thing, it is their ability to get the job done when qualifying for a major tournament and this 2-1 Wembley win against Slovakia has put them on the brink of yet another World Cup appearance. Only once since 1994, when England failed to make it to the World Cup, have they missed out on qualification for a tournament -- and that was 10 years ago, when Croatia and Russia denied England a place at Euro 2008.
The 3-2 defeat against Croatia in November 2007 remains the last time England have lost a qualifier on home soil. But for 40 minutes of Monday's game, Slovakia looked as though they had it within them to end that long unbeaten streak after taking a third-minute lead through Stanislav Lobotka. England were unconvincing, with their midfield lacking invention, but they were still able to steady the ship by equalising through Eric Dier and then secure the win with a long-range Marcus Rashford effort in the second half.
If they finish as Group F runners-up, Slovakia showed enough quality to suggest they will be a dangerous outsider in the play-offs in November, but will the England story be any different at the World Cup? Once again, they look to have made easy work for qualification, but the script usually takes a turn for the worst at the finals, when disappointment and under-performance tend to follow. They are a major football nation with a dismal record at the highest level, but they are now just two points away from confirming a place in Russia.
Once they get those points, from a home game against Slovenia and trip to Lithuania, the focus will shift to next summer and the hype will start all over again. But they have not done enough in qualification to suggest the same old story will have a different ending in Russia.
2. England must play to Rashford's strengths
Rashford's impressive second-half performance as a substitute against Malta on Friday deservedly earned the Manchester United forward a starting spot against Slovakia ahead of Manchester City's Raheem Sterling. But the selection almost backfired with Gareth Southgate initially deploying the teenager on the right side of England's attacking midfield three.
Just two minutes had gone when Rashford was caught in possession 30 yards from goal by Stanislav Lobotka, who took advantage by scoring the opener for Slovakia. It was careless by Rashford and nobody's mistake but his own, but he should not have been in that area of the pitch in the first place.
Rashford's best displays for United this season have been down the left, where he is able to cut inside onto his stronger right foot, but Southgate instead started Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in that position. The two wide men were switched late in the first half, though, and Rashford immediately stepped up his game, shooting narrowly wide from 25 yards moments before half-time. He also set up Eric Dier's equaliser with a corner on 37 minutes. Then came his stunning second-half goal, which gave England the lead and control of the game.
Rashford shrugged off his early mistake to make a key contribution, emphasising his mental strength. Against Malta, Sterling missed an easy chance early in the game and did not bounce back; the United youngster clearly has the edge on his City counterpart in that area.
3. England need to solve their right-side problem
The news earlier on Monday that Liverpool's Nathaniel Clyne will miss the group stage of his club's Champions League campaign due to injury will be a concern to Southgate. Without the former Southampton right-back, England lack genuine cover for Manchester City defender Kyle Walker, which just adds to the manager's problems down the right side.
By starting with Rashford ahead of Walker, before switching him with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Southgate emphasised his shortage of options down the right flank. Oxlade-Chamberlain left Arsenal for Liverpool because he doesn't want to play on the right, so he cannot be a serious option to fill that role for England. Adam Lallana is another option but is currently out until October or November with injury.
As good as he is going forward, Walker can have defensive lapses and he was caught out more than once by Slovakia. So if England are to qualify for Russia 2018, they will need to find a solution down the right. Danny Welbeck (if he stays fit) offers greater attacking threat than Oxlade-Chamberlain and is comfortable in the position, but he is no world-beater. Yet whatever Southgate chooses to do, England's opponents will surely be quick to target this weak spot.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_