England beat Malta 1-0, with Harry Kane scoring the only goal.

Possibly the best illustration of how toothless England were for long spells of this never-in-doubt victory over the fourth-worst team in Europe was that they only mustered their first shot on target in the 64th minute. It came from Trent Alexander-Arnold and it was routine for the Malta goalkeeper, Henry Bonello.

England had been ahead since Enrico Pepe’s eighth minute own goal, forced by Phil Foden, who was the best player on the pitch. But it was all a bit vanilla, Gareth Southgate’s team not needing to over-exert themselves and not doing so.

Qualification for the Euro finals next summer had already been secured, the jeopardy long since removed from the campaign and it was difficult to get too angry about the failure to rack up the goals. The massive Wembley crowd did not. They were relaxed as England rather went through the motions.

Related: England 2-0 Malta: Euro 2024 qualifying – live reaction

Harry Kane was incensed to be yellow carded for a 28th minute dive inside the area; it was a seen-them-given penalty appeal, the contact with Bonello there but he could smile after sweeping home the second goal following a lovely team move – which stood out, in truth, because of its novelty factor.

Southgate had wanted to win and to entertain; the former remained the priority, even if it was impossible to imagine anything other than one result. Malta arrived with no points from seven ties in the group but the statistic that truly damned them was the one that says they have won only seven qualifiers in 61 years of trying. “We know that we will have to suffer,” said the manager, Michele Marcolini, said at the pre-match press conference.

Incredibly, Malta might have scored first and inside minute one, Matthew Guillaumier robbing Conor Gallagher and passing to Teddy Teuma, who fizzed a low first-time drive inches past Jordan Pickford’s post. If that was certainly not a part of the script for England, what came shortly afterwards was more like it.

Foden’s first touch, that set the ball up the inside right channel for him to chase, was typically instinctive and how he chased, flicking on the afterburners to zoom into the area. He thought that the cut-back was on, although he might have gone for goal himself, but it did not reach the intended recipient, Kane. Instead it hit Pepe and flew past Bonnello. Pepe can say he scored at Wembley.

Foden brought the tricks and the bursts but Malta could reflect upon a good first-half; they let England know they were in a physical contest, kept their shape and made a few inroads, Paul Mbong blasting one shot high. Marcolini could be seen hopping in frustration on 18 minutes when his team missed a pass to advance into the final third. It suggested that he thought England could be got at. He and his players did not look overawed, with Teuma enjoying some nice moments on the ball.

The big talking point of the first-half came when the referee, Luis Godinho, chose to ignore an England penalty claim for a challenge by Bonello on Kane and book the England captain for diving. Bonello had taken a heavy touch on a back pass, Kane nipped in and left his trailing leg behind him, waiting for the contact from Bonello, which duly came. Kane has certainly seen them given.



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