England offer reminder of 2022 World Cup credentials with simple but sublime Hungary win
So much for the toughest game on the road to the World Cup. If it was a calculated gamble from Gareth Southgate to give John Stones his first start last night since the Euros final against Italy 53 days ago with Manchester City having given him an extended break after the tournament, it turned out to be a continuation of his holiday.
It was an evening of leisure time for Stones and co as England’s miserly defence put their feet up in Budapest and watched the show at the other end.
The meanest rearguard in town at the Euros enhanced its reputation further with another clean sheet in Budapest in a game which turned into a walk in the park. Jordan Pickford had only one save to make all game.
England had reverted to a back four – the cross-Manchester mix – after the three-man unit Gareth Southgate had picked for the final and, protected energetically by the Declan Rice-Kalvin Phillips axis in front of them, there was nothing to concern them.
Stones did cause a minor flutter when he allowed the ball to bounce over his head in the 19th minute and onto Roland Sallai outside the England penalty area but he reacted quickly to tidy up his error. Maybe it was a way of involving himself in the game. All the action was in the other half.
Little happened before the break but the wearing-down process had its rewards afterwards as a confident and competent England showed why they came so close to a major trophy in the summer, enjoying a rampant 4-0 win.
Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Rice all scored but if Tottenham’s Kane had put his shooting boots on it could have been six.
Stones joined England’s swelling 50-cap club last night and can have enjoyed few more leisurely rides.
There were four half-centurions in the starting line-up against Hungary with Stones joining Kane, Sterling and Kyle Walker.
Before too long Maguire and Jordan Pickford will have reached that mark too.
Southgate made a great play of the fact that England were the youngest side in the last 16 at the Euros during the summer but the experience they are accumulating will be invaluable in 14 months’ time in Qatar.
And it is when not if they reach the World Cup finals now. Five points clear in Group I, the job is almost done already.
If there was any fear there would be a hangover after the shoot-out nightmare at Wembley last time out that was emphatically banished on Thursday night.
For Stones, who made his debut back in 2014 against Peru with 15 minutes off the bench in a 3-0 win at Wembley, the England environment will be unrecognisable now from those dim and distant days under Roy Hodgson.
Under Southgate the team is a team in every sense of the word and has reached a World Cup semi-final, a Nations League semi-final and a Euros final.
Looking forward, they have their sights set high. For good reason.
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