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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 21 June 2018

Kane on target as conservative England edge lowly Lithuania in final World Cup qualifier

Undistinguished 1-0 win extends already-qualified England’s unbeaten run in campaign to 39 games

Forward Harry Kane scored England's opener. Carl Recine / Reuters
Forward Harry Kane scored England's opener. Carl Recine / Reuters

Perhaps it was the fitting end to a largely forgettable qualifying campaign.

An undistinguished win with a Harry Kane goal extended England’s unbeaten run in qualifiers to 39 games. A 1-0 victory in Lithuania offered both dullness and statistical significance. It may yet assume a greater meaning if it is a sign of things to come.

Gareth Southgate changed system and personnel. The England manager’s selections had been conservative of late. Here he was much more adventurous. For the first time in a decade, England began a competitive game with a back three. It was a vision of something different.

There is a theory that a Tottenham-esque 3-4-2-1 suits the players at Southgate’s disposal. It certainly did for the goal. It featured a centre-back, the debutant Harry Maguire, coming out of defence with the ball and a holding midfielder, Jordan Henderson, getting into the box to head into Dele Alli’s path. The Spurs man was caught by Ovidijus Verbickas and Kane drove the penalty in via the post for his seventh goal in his last five internationals.

Another indication of the formation’s benefits came when a liberated Henderson got forward to cross and Aaron Cresswell, the left wing-back brought in among seven alterations, got forward to draw a fine save with a header. Henderson’s sidekick was the other newcomer. Harry Winks was neat and tidy in possession, knitting the play together, as a veteran of four Premier League starts made his international bow.

Kane was relentlessly persistent, though he is regardless of the tactics. Alli, operating in a position that has become familiar for Spurs, was brighter after some ineffectual displays for his country. Marcus Rashford produced one sparkling solo run, but in a more mixed display. Yet on the debit side, England only mustered one goal against a Lithuania team ranked 120th in the world and they created too few chances. Their passing remains safe and more invention and incision will be required against better opponents.

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Should Southgate persist with this formation, Rashford may have to be sacrificed to accommodate Adam Lallana when the Liverpool man is fit again. Eric Dier, previously seen as a certain starter, was benched as Winks was brought in for a role that, with three centre-backs behind him, could suit Jack Wilshere or, when fit, Ross Barkley.

Yet if adding an extra central defender was supposed to guarantee extra security, it did not quite work out that way. Jack Butland was tested most by teammate Michael Keane, and he spared the Everton defender the ignominy of an own goal. Deivydas Matulevicius could also have levelled but shot at Butland, who had too few chances to show if he is an upgrade on the rested Joe Hart.

The real drama in Group F came elsewhere. Scotland kicked off in second place and their hopes of reaching a first tournament since the 1998 World Cup were enhanced when Leigh Griffiths put them ahead against Slovenia. Yet they drew 2-2 as Slovakia, 3-0 victors against Malta, finished as runners-up instead.