Defoe defies doubters
GARETH Southgate was on the pitch when Jermain Defoe played his first game for England. His last? Well, that may be some way off after a display that thoroughly vindicated Southgate’s decision to relaunch Defoe’s international career.
The Sunderland man scored the goal that set England on their way to a 33rd straight qualifying game without defeat. It is a record that stretches back to 2009 under Fabio Capello and even that loss – 1-0 in Ukraine – was a dead rubber having already qualified. At home, the record is even better – all the way back to 2000, against Germany.
Defoe hadn’t even embarked on his international career back then. March 31, 2004, was when it all began – Sweden 1 England 0 in Gothenburg. Defoe made his debut as a 12thminute substitute for Darius Vassell, Southgate came on for Jonathan Woodgate at the start of the second half, in what was his final England game.
Some bloke called Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored the only goal of the match. Wonder what happened to him? So it was brave, in many ways, for Southgate to go with Defoe, even if he has been in as good form as any English-born striker this season.
Not since the days of Glenn Hoddle and Tony Adams has an England manager selected an old international teammate, so it says something of Defoe’s longevity or maybe Southgate’s youth – that they were actually playing contemporaries, albeit in only one match.
Pre-match criticism followed an obvious line. So much for the future. What use will an old man be in Russia in 2018? How must Marcus Rashford feel, watching a 34-year-old from the substitutes’ bench?
All irrelevant, of course. Planning for some far off day is only part of the duty of an England manager and Southgate can hardly be accused of ignoring it with Michael Keane in the team and Dele Alli so obviously having usurped Wayne Rooney at No 10.
The job is to win matches. And while Southgate does that – and while his selections jus- tify that faith, as Defoe did – birth certificates are insignificant.
There had been much possession, to little effect, and 21 minutes gone, when Defoe intervened, scoring a goal that was the epitome of the striker’s art. It followed outstanding work by Raheem Sterling on the left, leaving three players behind before cutting the ball back from the by-line.
Defoe’s finish was textbook. He kept the ball down but used a powerful sidefoot for better accuracy, leaving goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus helpless. On the touchline, Southgate punched the air in an emotional show.
Job done, Defoe was withdrawn after an hour – the younger, quicker Jamie Vardy coming on to stretch the Lithuanians as they tired. Within six minutes he had scored England’s second: the ball, the game and Lithuania put to bed in one deft move by England.
Kyle Walker played in Adam Lallana who hit a lovely little pass inside to Vardy, losing his man and slipping the ball past goalkeeper Setkus to draw any remaining sting from the game. Not that there was much to begin with.
Indeed, it could be argued that the most significant goal for England yesterday was not even scored at Wembley but across on the other side of Europe, in Baku.
Dimitrij Nazarov, a midfielder for Azerbaijan and Bundesliga 2 club Erzgebirge Aue, put one in against Ger- many. When he did, it made Southgate’s England the only team in Uefa World Cup qualifying not to have conceded a goal.
Lithuania’s best chance only came about because a linesman did not do his job, and for much of the 90 minutes this was little more than a training exercise with benefits. Sharper finishing could have given the win a more dominant air.
Lallana set up a chance for Defoe after 20 minutes that Setkus kept out with a foot, Sterling should have scored at the far post after 48 minutes, while Alex Oxlade- Chamberlain had a shot well saved on 53 and Rashford could have added a third goal with a dribble in the final minute of normal time.
The biggest threat to England was randomly generated. Joe Hart kicked a ball clear, it was headed back towards England’s goal and Nerijus Valskis, offside by a good five yards, was allowed to go for it and challenge Hart for the header, which he won.
As the ball bounced towards England’s empty goal, John Stones was on hand to clear. What a travesty it would have been had that gone in.
Instead, towards the finals in Russia, England go. That’s when the trouble usually begins – and clean sheets are harder to come by. – Daily Mail