Glenn Hoddle kept banging on about how well England played against Germany and Gareth Southgate highlighted the positives. But if the friendly fixture in Dortmund on Wednesday had been in a major final which players would have been running around the pitch with the Cup? England huffed and puffed and then the German guy who made the speech before the match just hit the ball as hard as possible in the direction on the net. It was very efficient if you don’t mind a bit of national stereotyping.
England had a massive ratio of shots to goals in the finals of the 2016 European Championships. Again the pundits accentuated the good things but there is a fundamental rule in football and that is the team that scores most goals wins the match. England will no doubt qualify for the World Cup Finals in Russia next summer and beating Lithuania in a qualifier at Wembley on Sunday will be part of that process. But can they at last excel when it matters most?
Southgate more than most knows what its like to not deliver on the big occasion. He missed the crucial penalty in the semi-final against Germany at Euro 96. At least England gave it a good go in that tournament and they would have been worthy winners. Since then a pattern has emerged of decent qualifying tournaments followed by major underachievement when it mattered most. England don’t get tough draws but falter in the big moments. The sum of the individual talents makes less than it should be in the key matches and managerial incompetence doesn’t help.
That whole trend came to an inglorious head against Iceland at the Euros last summer. England missed loads of chances in the Group matches but papered over the cracks by getting out of the group. However, there was an uneasy feeling that the missed chances would be costly against better opposition. But England did not play anyone half decent except Wales and were exposed mentally against Iceland. Southgate talks about dealing with previous scars and gave his penalty miss in Euro 96 as an example.
Germany were frankly hopeless in the first half on Wednesday. However, regular England watchers could see the signs of good approach play, a couple of decent chances but the goals tally stubbornly staying at zero. Adam Lallana and Dele Alli missed sitters and in the back of fan’s mind was the feeling that Germany would improve in the second half and find a way to win the match. England tired and ran out of ideas and Germany finished the match strongly, looking the most likely scorers in the closing stages.
England will beat Lithuania on Sunday and probably by a number of goals. Wembley will be packed out which is remarkable when you consider the garbage England usually produce in the major finals tournaments. The loyalty of the fans knows no bounds as Wembley tickets are not cheap and the place is still difficult to get to, especially for a match starting at 5pm on Sunday which seems bizarre scheduling. The match is live on ITV and the TV companies are the paymasters. It does make travelling difficult for any supporter living a fair distance from the stadium.
Lithuania are 107th in the world rankings and England are at number 14 in the standings. The teams met in qualifying for the last European Championships with England winning 4-0 at home and by one less goal without reply in Lithuania. A similar margin of victory is expected on Sunday and anything less than a comfortable England win would be a major shock. However, the nature of the qualifying process is that a draw or Lithuania win would not seriously damage England’s prospects for qualification to the 2018 World Cup. However, Southgate could literally send out his second string and win the match.
England could be described as flat track bullies and no doubt will rack up plenty of goals in Group F which also includes Slovenia, Slovakia, Scotland and Malta. Beating these relative minnows says nothing about the quality of the side and that is usually exposed by decent opponents in finals but Iceland did the job perfectly well last summer. England will qualify for the World Cup but only in the finals does it get serious but ultimately comical usually for England for all the wrong reasons.