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England give Gareth Southgate cause for concern as Three Lions lack bite in Kosovo win | Football | Sport


England arrived in Kosovo as heroes and left as heroes after another convincing win finished their qualifying campaign with a flourish.

They were applauded around the ground after handing out yet another Group A thumping.

But Gareth Southgate’s concern will be the hour-long period at the start of the game when his Three Lions looked to be beginning to believe their own hype.

It seems churlish to quibble with another big win, achieved well within their comfort zone and against a team of European football minnows determined to put on a show in the biggest game of their brief international history.

Britain’s leading role in the NATO peacekeeping force that liberated this small country barely two decades ago meant England’s players and their fans were welcomed with open arms.

Home supporters even held aloft the cross of St George during the playing of the national anthem.

But that was just it. It was all too friendly and the competitive edge that had already got England a place at the finals with a game to spare completely went missing.

Aside from Harry Winks, who took a most-accomplished opening goal against the run of play, England’s players were made to look very much second best while they seemed to content simply to phone in their performances.

There have been no Hollywood stars, though. England’s successes have been built on the fact everybody rolls their sleeves up, focuses on the task at hand, and follows Southgate’s direction to make the best of the ensemble cast.

A little bit too much swagger saw simple passes go astray, men left unmarked and over-elaborate manoeuvres destroy the quick turnover of possession.

Early in both halves Kosovo had good chances that could have told a very different story.

As it was, for over an hour England never looked like adding to Winks goal, conjured himself when he stepped inside the hopelessly static Ibrahim Dresevic and steered the ball inside the post for his first England goal in six appearances.

He has won every time he has played for the Three Lions.

Perhaps that is no surprise – his drive was all that was giving England any sort of momentum as the visitors seemed to content to rely on their reputations.

Even Harry Kane could only hit the post in the 62nd minute when teed up by Raheem Sterling.

He’s seldom denied twice, in fairness, and when a deflected cross from the same player picked him out 11 minutes from time he duly completed his remarkable achievement of having scored in every single game of this qualifying campaign.

The finale was more like the free-scoring England we have become used to, but mainly because the heart seemed to have drained from their opponents.

Sterling belatedly showed some of the fire that his exile on Thursday might have been expected to have stoked. He ran from the half-way line to feed in substitute Marcus Rashford for a well-taken third.

And Mason Mount, denied by an offside flag against Montenegro, finally opened his England account in injury time thanks to some selfless work from Kane.

Overall, it was more than good enough for Kosovo.

But Southgate knows tougher experiences lie ahead and he cannot afford any passengers.

Declan Rice, for example, made a brilliant tackle towards the end but needs to get with the fast-paced storyline because it is collective energy rather than individual talents that make this England team work.

Brazil in 1982 could beat teams by knocking the ball around the park. England need to do the hard yards.

There were not enough of those here in Pristina.

An international break that started with rather too much fight among the players, ended with too little of it.

If a bit of balance is the only thing missing seven months before the finals begin, the signs are there that England might just have a chance.

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