There is a school of thought that argues for a preliminary layer of UEFA qualifying for FIFA World Cup tournaments, a play-in competition to weed out the worst of the minnows and reduce the number of qualifying matches that are only ever going to go one way. It’s not a point of view to which I subscribe, but if it ever came to be one could be sure that Moldova and England wouldn’t meet again any time soon.
England have now played Moldova three times and have scored a total of 12 goals without reply. Roy Hodgson’s first qualifying match produced a win so comfortable that it might as well have been wearing a slanket. England cruised, picking their hosts apart at will and eventually settling for a five-goal margin as their thoughts turned to the match against Ukraine at Wembley on Tuesday night.
Qualifiers like Friday night’s can get tricky, although England usually find enough of a way through to secure three points. But an early goal for the better team kills the resilience of the underdogs and that’s exactly what England got last night. Just three minutes after the kick-off in Chisinau, Manchester United midfielder Tom Cleverley was left unmarked in the area and his shot was blocked by a Moldovan hand. There seemed little intent on the defender’s part, but the spot kick was given and Frank Lampard’s penalty was flawless.
After a more positive spell Moldova were caught out by a pinpoint pass into the box by Glen Johnson on the half hour. Lampard couldn’t have asked for a better ball but added a fine twist of his own with a lovely cushioned header into the bottom corner. The game now entirely in England’s control, Jermain Defoe fired in a characteristically instinctive low drive that foxed the goalkeeper and banked the win for Hodgson’s side.
Substitutes Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck combined to make the fourth goal after the break. Walcott broke at pace, lost the ball, won it back and then played some patient football with Welbeck and Cleverley around the box before Manchester City’s James Milner appeared on the edge to keep his knee over the ball and smash it into the bottom corner for 4-0.
Everton left back Leighton Baines got in on the act with five minutes left on the clock. The free kick 25 yards from goal was tailor-made for his fearsome left foot, but his strike made its way into the opposite corner to the one intended by way of a raised arm in the wall. The goalkeeper had no chance of getting remotely close to the ball as it spun away from him.
The performance was generally pleasing, particularly in the first half. England – possibly buoyed by their early goal – worked tirelessly with and without the ball, pressing high up the pitch to force an endless sequence of errors from their opponents and retaining the ball well when in possession themselves. In some ways it was a classic Hodgson showing: a hard-working and well-drilled unit pressuring its opposition out of the game.
The second half inevitably carried little sting. England relaxed and occasionally looked complacent. Two goals were added to the first half lead, however, and the occasional mistake and lapse in concentration is understandable when playing in what was barely more competitive than a training match. To criticise the players in such circumstances would be to take the whole thing too seriously – it was 5-0, the points were won and no embarrassment was sustained. We couldn’t have asked for a better start to Hodgson’s first full challenge.
A positive result and ample contributions from both Lampard and Steven Gerrard has inevitably fuelled much of the media’s reaction to the game. The Mirror‘s Oliver Holt took a break from praising and defending Martin O’Neill at every opportunity to give his view – in single-sentence paragraphs, naturally – on Hodgson’s midfield:
“Getting Lampard and Gerrard to play effectively together has been identified as England’s great conundrum over the last decade. But last night they purred. Perhaps it is the 4-2-3-1 formation that suits them. Perhaps it is the confidence Hodgson has instilled in Gerrard.”
Or perhaps it is the opposition, ranked 141st in the world and quashed by a goal inside the first five minutes. Holt also rightly reserves special praise for Cleverley and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, and points out that the team already looks better than the pragmatic Euros side. However, it is foolish to put too much emphasis on such easy qualifiers. The match against Ukraine will tell something closer to the real story.
Jeremy Wilson‘s analysis for The Telegraph delved a little deeper:
“In also introducing the youthful invention of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Tom Cleverley alongside his two old campaigners, Roy Hodgson found that elusive balance last night between a midfield of youth and experience, invention and discipline. “
Sam Wallace in The Independent wasn’t too keen on England’s opposition on Friday night:
“At least when Andorra played England, the men from the principality tried their best to kick their opponents. Kazakhstan had the occasional good moment, including a goal at Wembley. But of all the small fry whom the national team have been obliged to step over in qualification for tournaments in recent years, poor old Moldova looked the weakest of the lot.”
It’s difficult to disagree, and that’s why one shouldn’t place too much importance on the performances of the midfield veterans – after all, one of them only played 45 minutes. And even if it does start to work, even if Hodgson does make Gerrard and Lampard click, it’s too late. Or it should be.
(Photo credit: Ben Sutherland via Flickr)