England survived a scare as they came from behind to beat Slovakia at Wembley and take a giant stride towards qualification for next summer’s World Cup in Russia.
Stanislav Lobotka took advantage of sloppy defensive work to put Slovakia ahead after just three minutes – the start of a shoddy first-half display by Gareth Southgate’s side.
Marcus Rashford was culpable in conceding possession for the goal but recovered superbly to inspire England to a win that leaves them five points clear at the top of Group F with just two rounds of games to play.
Rashford’s clever near-post corner was swept in by Eric Dier eight minutes before half-time, and the Manchester United teenager was England’s match-winner as he powered a superb shot past Slovakia keeper Martin Dubravka after 59 minutes.
England will confirm their place in Russia with victory against Slovenia at Wembley in their next qualifier on 5 October.
England – and this is perhaps flattering them – were colourless, joyless and largely mediocre for the first 45 minutes.
Gareth Southgate’s side were stunned by Lobotka’s early goal and a Slovakia side that came out swinging from the first whistle.
And yet, for all the paucity of quality and invention of that first half, England deserve credit for the manner in which they dug themselves out of a hole in a nervous atmosphere.
England, obviously, are nowhere near the international game’s top tier but they showed character and resilience to get the job done without suggesting at any point they might make a serious impact at next summer’s finals.
In many ways it was a display typical of England’s progress through this group, keeping themselves in control of their own destiny without ever touching the heights – while doing Scotland a favour into the bargain.
It was another case of job done. And another step nearer Russia.
Rashford’s livewire performance as a substitute in Malta earned him a deserved start here – and he recovered from a poor opening to show temperament and character as well as the very obvious quality he possesses.
The Manchester United forward was guilty of conceding possession cheaply as Slovakia took the lead, a mistake that could easily have led to the 19-year-old’s confidence being affected on such an important occasion.
Not a bit of it.
Rashford continued to run fearlessly at pace at Slovakia’s defence and was willing to make bold decisions in a bid to get England back into the game.
It paid off – his quick thinking as he took a near-post corner leading to Dier’s sweeping finish for the equaliser, before he finally gave England the measure of control they had struggled to exert with a fine shot into the corner just before the hour.
Rashford was given a rousing ovation when he went off eight minutes from time – and it was fully deserved for the man who made the difference.
“Rashford’s biggest quality is his temperament,” said former England defender Phil Neville on BBC Radio 5 live.
“He never looks flustered. He makes a mistake, he misses a chance, he is straight back on the ball and he improves every time I see him.
“We have got an absolute gem on our hands. He has brilliant technique and he has his feet on the ground. He goes watching his mates play on a Sunday morning, he has a laugh and a joke with Jesse Lingard, he doesn’t post things on Instagram which make you think he is getting carried away.
“He is a little superstar.”
England stand on the brink of World Cup qualification with a five-point advantage and two games left – at home to Slovenia and away to Lithuania.
It has been relatively comfortable progress but carries all the familiar dangers of qualification for Euro 2012, the 2014 World Cup in Brazil and Euro 2016 in France last summer.
England have not come under serious pressure or been tested by top-class opposition – and yet even in that context they have barely been convincing.
Southgate still has until next summer to try to fashion further development of this England squad – but on current evidence none of the World Cup superpowers will be breaking into a sweat about their threat.
Alli gesture ‘aimed at Walker’
One potential blot on England’s copybook came when midfielder Dele Alli was seen to raise his middle finger during the second half.
The incident occurred after the Tottenham player was body-checked by Slovakia defender Martin Skrtel, and referee Clement Turpin waved play on.
It initially appeared the gesture was made in the direction of Turpin, but Alli said after the game it was aimed at team-mate Kyle Walker.
England manager Gareth Southgate, speaking on BBC Radio 5 live: “We didn’t start the game well but I was pleased with the way the players reacted on the field. They got themselves into better positions. We were stretched in the first 15 minutes or so.
“Great credit to the players for staying in the game and then in the second half we were in control. We didn’t give them space to play.
“Rashford showed everything he has. At times he has to do better but his work on the ball, the maturity of his performance and his ability to go past people was devastating to the opposition and lifted the whole crowd.”
England goalscorer Eric Dier on BBC Radio 5 live: “We started poorly and I am happy to get a goal that kick-started the game for us. We were in control for most of the game then.
“We weren’t aggressive enough and were two seconds behind them in every pass. The way we turned it around was positive.
“I had belief. When we went 1-1, we went into the dressing room and the feeling was we would go on to win.
“We want to have a relationship with the fans. We need their support and want to play in a way that gets that.”
Former England defender Phil Neville on BBC Radio 5 live: “It was a good performance from England and a real test for Gareth Southgate and his team. The belief and the confidence returned after a poor first half-hour and they are one step closer to Russia.
“Before the game Gareth said we were nowhere near the levels of Spain or Germany but I definitely think we are heading in the right direction.”