Kane marks England debut with memorable goal in win vs. Lithuania

LONDON — The long saunter to France goes on. England toppled Lithuania 4-0 on Friday, winning a fifth game out of five in European Championship qualifying to maintain a six-point lead at the top Group E.

With half the series still to go, the thought of failing to qualify already seems preposterous. It would be easy to dismiss England’s achievement after what was a relatively kind draw, but more illustrious powers have stuttered in groups that are only slightly more taxing. There were signs at Wembley of a swagger about England, of a team shape perhaps slowly emerging.

And that was even before Harry Kane came on to gild yet further an increasingly absurd season by scoring within 80 seconds of his international debut.

After all the talk about a start for Kane, Roy Hodgson, to use his own idiosyncratic phrase refused to “succumb to the clamour” and instead selected the same forward line that has served him so well throughout the qualifiers.

Vindication was rapid. Rooney, running on to Fabian Delph’s flick over the top, hit the inside of the post in the fourth minute and three minutes later, England was ahead.

Danny Welbeck, the man who would probably have missed out for Kane, picked up a loose ball on the right, nutmegged the Lithuania captain Tadas Kijanskas and, although his shot was saved, Rooney was on hand to nod the rebound into an unguarded net. It was his 47th international goal, leaving him one behind Gary Lineker and two behind Bobby Charlton in the all-time England rankings.

Hodgson’s loyalty to Welbeck was presumably rooted in two factors. Firstly, the Arsenal forward has been excellent in qualifying so far. And secondly, his ability to play wide offers England far more variety in attack.

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In the home game against Slovenia, England played with a midfield diamond in the first half and the result was a narrowness that meant the game became congested: 0-0 at half-time became 3-1 in the second as England opened out and switched to a 4-3-3. Welbeck and Raheem Sterling kept switching wings, now right, now left, with Rooney as a totem ahead of them, and Lithuania’s defense never really got to grips with their intermovement.

The midfield three also impressed. After switching to a 4-2-3-1 just before the World Cup, Hodgson has maintained a central triangle in every game since, and has been rewarded with seven wins – the first time England has ever began a season with so many consecutive victories.

The names may not be as glamorous as some of their predecessors, but there is balance. Michael Carrick offered elegant authority in front of the back four – although without, it should be said, having to do much in the way of defending. Jordan Henderson offered his usual energy and drive, while Fabian Delph brought a blend of bite and attacking thrust.

A Welbeck dart 18 minutes in not only kept the ball in play but contrived to chip a cross to the back post. Rooney, backpedalling, sent a looping header back across goal, but his effort came back off the crossbar.

England seemed to find space whenever it went forward: Lithuania had arrived with a reputation for organization and doggedness – even in the 4-0 defeat to Switzerland it had held out until the 66th minute, but there was little sign of that here, the pace of the early England surge seeming to leave it disoriented.

The second goal that had been threatened arrived a minute before half-time. Henderson drove the ball across goal from the left and Welbeck diverted it goalward with a deft diving header. The ball glanced in off the luckless Zaliukas, but Welbeck was credited with the goal – his sixth in five qualifying games so far, further justifying Hodgson’s decision to select him.

After half-time there was more of the same. Giedrius Arlauskis, the Lithuania goalkeeper, made fine saves to keep out a volley from Delph and a fierce shot from Welbeck, but after 58 minutes he could do nothing as Rooney crossed low for Sterling to prod in his first international goal in his 14th cap.

Kane – of course – took nowhere near as long. He replaced Rooney – Welbeck, significantly, kept on to retain the width; when he was replaced it was by Theo Walcott – and with his third touch, scored his first international goal. Sterling was the architect, working space on the left and chipping the ball to the back post where Kane sent a downward header past Arlauskis’s sprawl. Sometime the 21 year old is going to wake up, but it hasn’t happened yet.

This, though, wasn’t just his night: four different forwards scored on a welcome ease for England. Hodgson could feel he got his selection just right.