England’s defensive mistakes gave Gareth Southgate food for thought on a night when his attackers’ devastating play proved enough to see off Kosovo in a thrilling Euro 2020 qualifying clash.
The Three Lions boss was at pains to stress in the build-up that international football’s new boys were not only far better than their place 120th in the world rankings but the toughest Group A test to date.
Yet while England’s march towards Euro 2020 continued with a fourth win from as many qualifiers, the pulsating 5-3 win against Kosovo left Southgate with plenty to ponder.
Jadon Sancho’s brace complemented Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane efforts, along with Mergim Vojvoda’s own goal, in a rip-roaring first half that started with Valon Berisha capitalising on a shocking Michael Keane mistake 34 seconds in.
Berisha scored a second in a sloppy second half that saw Harry Maguire foolishly give away a penalty that Vedat Muriqi scored unlike the normally reliable Kane, whose spot-kick miss summed up a strange night in Southampton.
“Well, bizarre really,” Southgate said of the performance.
“The outstanding features and the poor features are apparent to everybody, so we don’t need to get the video out and go back through it.
“Poor individual mistakes, a poor start to the game.
“The small period after half-time: ridiculous mistakes, poor decisions, lack of covering back.”
Asked if the individual errors were just a lack of concentration rather than anything more fundamental, the England boss said: “I think that is something that we have to consider over a period of time because there were obviously mistakes that were concerning, really.
“Whether it was the intensity of the game, whether it was the pressure, I don’t know.
“We’ve got to reflect on that, but they were such basic errors, really, that you have to learn from.”
There are no such problems at the other end of the field, with his attacking trio showing just why Southgate considers his forwards among the world’s best.
“Raheem, Jadon and Harry were outstanding,” he said.
“I mean Raheem’s two performances have been of the highest level.
“I think he’s been almost unstoppable, his awareness of where defenders were, his ability to ride challenges, his vision and desire to get in on goal, and unselfish play as well, so I couldn’t speak highly enough of the way he played.
“You know we were talking about the three on Saturday, Jadon’s performance was at that level as well.
“He worked really hard for the team without the ball and showed the ability he has to go past people, to be calm in tight areas. So, that part of our game was absolutely outstanding.”
Eccentric counterpart Bernard Challandes joked it was a shame that Sterling was not Kosovan – “it’s impossible to play against him or you do a foul” – and was pleased with his side’s display at St Mary’s.
“OK, we have decided to try to play football, to take risk and we have seen in the first half how strong England is,” the Kosovo head coach said.
“We have tried, we have played, we have also lost some unnecessary balls and we have paid immediately because the counters of England were very, very beautiful.
“Our idea was immediately to press England for surprise and, OK, we win this ball – or they give us the ball – it’s 1-0. It’s perfect for us.
“But after clearly England were very strong and played a very good half.
“Second half was good for us. If I do British humour, we have won 2-0 and who has won 2-0 against England in one half? Who is the last team?”
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Raheem Sterling has been rated above Neymar with former Chelsea and Marseille forward Tony Cascarino adamant the Manchester City star should be aiming to win the Ballon d’Or.
Sterling was instrumental during England’s 4-0 blanketing of Bulgaria, scoring one and assisting another as he took his sensational club form into the international arena.
Neymar meanwhile returned to action for Brazil following months out with an ankle injury and replicated Sterling’s feat in the 2-2 draw with Colombia.
Cascarino believes it is clear who is the better player, though.
“Try to ignore the antics that have gone on with Neymar off the field, I actually think Sterling’s better on the field,” he said (h/t Goal.com)
“His numbers are better and he’s playing in a better team. I’ve seen Neymar do things that no other footballer can do in the game, like a ‘Harlem Globetrotter’ footballer.
“But if you want a player to be brilliant for the team and score goals at the rate Neymar can, Sterling’s your man.”
Sterling has evolved into one of the finest wingers in world football under boss Pep Guardiola and he formed a key component of City’s historic domestic treble in 2018/19.
With Neymar spending much of his time at Paris Saint-Germain in the physio room, Sterling has been able to get ahead.
“I would definitely argue he’s in the top five players in the world,” added Cascarino.
“What excites me about Sterling is the improvement. The improvement has been dramatic.
“If you were to put him on the market tomorrow, Man City wouldn’t take £150 million for him.
“If he continues to improve, he’ll become the first or second [best player in the world] and probably win the Ballon d’Or along the way.
“If he wins the Champions League with Man City and plays a big part in that, and he scores a lot of goals over the course of the season, he’ll have a great chance of winning it [the Ballon d’Or].”
Belgium manager Roberto Martinez feels Romelu Lukaku will be unaffected by recent racist abuse.
And the Spaniard claims the striker arrived in the international camp a happier player because of his move from Manchester United to Inter Milan.
Lukaku is set to be unleashed on Scotland in a Euro 2020 qualifier on Monday night after being rested for his country’s 4-0 victory in San Marino.
The 26-year-old was subjected to taunts from a significant number of Cagliari fans a week ago and called for unity from players to tackle the problem.
Martinez, who managed the forward at Everton, said: “Romelu is one of those modern footballers, he was born with attention. He had the media following him around in Belgium since he was 16.
“He had the expectations of a team that had to win at Anderlecht with Champions League participation. Then he had a big transfer to Chelsea, had his time at West Brom, then handled big transfers to Everton, Manchester United and now Inter.
“Romelu doesn’t get affected. He is one of the most driven boys you can see. His life is football, he lives to score goals. So I haven’t seen a difference.
“It is true he was sad with the episode he had to go through but I’m sure that is something everyone in football will try to help him and hopefully people running football will eradicate it.”
Lukaku netted the winner at Cagliari and Martinez feels he is thriving again after a largely unhappy spell at Old Trafford.
“In the June camp I saw Romelu was free on the pitch and performed very well but he was quite concerned off it,” the former Everton boss said.
“This is the first time I have seen him happy going back many, many camps. He is so focused and refreshed by his new challenge.”
Scotland fell six points off second place after a 2-1 home defeat by Russia on Friday but Martinez believes Steve Clarke’s men are a team on the up.
“You have six players at least starting week in, week out in the Premier League, three of those are in the top six,” he said.
“This has the makings of a young generation with huge potential.
“Now the work is to get that competitive edge. Steve Clarke needs to have time, patience and opportunity to work at international level the way he works at club level.
“The talent in the Scotland team is there to qualify for a major tournament, no doubt about that.
“Scotland are probably one or two good results away from being a team that can qualify.”
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