England concluded their successful Euro 2020 qualifying campaign with a victory over Kosovo that ensures they will be among the top six seeds in next summer’s tournament.
Despite the emphatic scoreline, it was an unconvincing performance by Gareth Southgate’s side but they were still able to end as comfortable winners in a remarkable atmosphere in Pristina.
It was a celebratory occasion where the visitors’ received a heroes’ welcome as icons in this country and for the part the United Kingdom played in its 1999 liberation following the Kosovo war.
Needing to avoid defeat to make sure they are in the top pot when the draw is made, England took a first-half lead as Harry Winks produced a composed finish for his first international goal.
Captain Harry Kane effectively wrapped things up with his 32nd goal for England from close range late on – maintaining a superb record of scoring in all eight qualifiers, before substitute Marcus Rashford got in on the act with a smooth finish.
Mason Mount rounded things off in the closing moments for his first goal for his country at senior level.
Kosovo, who were out of automatic qualifying contention but still played with great heart, had opportunities to make it even more of a gala night when trailing by a single goal but missed the chances that presented themselves, captain Amir Rrahmani headed wide of an open goal and Valon Berisha was inches off target.
England, however scrappy in spells, got the job done and can now start planning for Euro 2020.
England was greeted like heroes from the moment they arrived at Pristina airport on Saturday evening and this game was played out in an astonishing atmosphere.
The build-up was characterised by the themes of ‘Welcome, Brothers’ and ‘Welcome and Respect’, the PA announcer paying heartfelt thanks to England and their supporters for the part the UK government played in liberating Kosovo.
It was a passionate announcement greeted with loud applause around this compact stadium and when England’s team was read out, the crowd finished off each name with a deafening roar.
Kosovo fans held up St George’s flag cards during England’s national anthem and a huge flag was unfurled by the home fans before kick-off.
This was all in stark contrast to the racist abuse England’s players have been subjected to in Montenegro and Bulgaria earlier in this Euro 2020 qualifying group and were every bit as warm and welcoming as the Kosovans had promised.
This game was a sporting symbol of the new Kosovo in this vibrant, busy city as the locals got behind Bernard Challandes’ team with pride and passion, demonstrated by 300,000 applications to get into the 13,500 capacity stadium.
It was standing room only even outside, with groups of Kosovo fans arriving hours before kick-off to claim vantage points on steep steps behind one of the goals.
England’s victory bore pretty much all the hallmarks of what has been a very satisfactory campaign, apart from the dreadful performance in defeat against the Czech Republic in Prague.
Southgate possesses an attack of genuine class and potency, with Kane and Rashford on the scoresheet, Raheem Sterling creating two goals and the first England goals for Winks and Mount.
Sterling started after being dropped for Thursday’s 7-0 win over Montenegro following a clash with team-mate Joe Gomez on Monday. The Liverpool defender was subsequently ruled out of the match in Kosovo after injuring his knee in training on Friday.
England has scored 37 goals in qualifying, Kane equalling the highest tally in a calendar year with 12, going level with George Hilson in 1908 and Dixie Dean in 1927. There are no questions, other than enjoyable selection dilemmas, about Southgate’s firepower.
There are still lingering doubts elsewhere and they were not dismissed here, particularly with Kosovo dictating the terms and the tempo after half-time.
England remains vulnerable under pressure and the midfield combination of Winks and Declan Rice does not work when Southgate does not employ a number 10.
It is not right to be churlish after such a qualification but the impression remains that this England can be a mixed bag and will suffer against the opposition of the highest quality.
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Source – BBC