England took another comfortable step on the road to qualification for next summer’s World Cup in Russia as they eased past Lithuania at Wembley.
Gareth Southgate’s first game at Wembley since succeeding Sam Allardyce on a permanent basis provided few alarms as England remain firmly in control at the top of Group F.
Sunderland striker Jermain Defoe justified his call-up at 34 for a first England appearance since late 2013 with a typically clinical finish after 21 minutes and a lively performance that suggested he still has a part to play under Southgate.
And when Southgate needed someone to break Lithuania’s stubborn resistance after the break, substitute Jamie Vardy obliged from close-range in the 66th minute, converting a subtle touch from Liverpool’s Adam Lallana inside the area.
Eyebrows were raised in some quarters when Southgate recalled Defoe to the squad having last represented his country against Chile at Wembley in November 2013.
Defoe’s inclusion, however, represented perfect sense with a record of 14 Premier League goals and two assists in a Sunderland side propping up the table and England’s main striker Harry Kane out injured.
And so it proved as he pounced in trademark fashion for his first England goal in four years and four days since scoring in an easy win against San Marino, clipping a clinical finish high beyond Lithuania keeper Ernestas Setkus after 21 minutes from Raheem Sterling’s delivery.
Defoe had already brought one crucial block from the keeper earlier as he stole in on Lallana’s pass. He looks like a player full of hunger who has lost none of his predatory, goalscoring instincts.
England will face stubborn opposition again before this World Cup qualifying campaign is over and a poacher like Defoe may well come in very handy for Southgate as he plots his route to Russia next summer.
England’s friendly against Germany in Dortmund on Wednesday was effectively a testimonial for veteran striker Lukas Podolski on his international farewell – with an atmosphere to match in the normally thunderous Signal Iduna Park.
Wembley was also on the subdued side because World Cup Qualifying Group F is a hard-sell in terms of excitement for England’s fans, who understandably expect Southgate’s side to dismiss opposition such as Lithuania with the minimum of fuss.
England fulfilled those requirements comfortably in the face of stubborn opponents who sat back and invited them on in the early phases, then seemed intent on damage limitation and no more as any hope of getting a return from this qualifier evaporated.
There may be more of the same in the remaining home qualifiers against Slovakia and Slovenia but England, once again, are getting the job done as they move closer to reaching the World Cup.
The old lingering fear remains that the real measure of how far England are progressing under Southgate will come at a major tournaments, where their limitations have been exposed regularly.
Southgate can be satisfied from what he has got from England’s international double header, with a creditable performance in defeat against World Cup holders Germany and victory here against Lithuania.
If he has a complaint, it could be that England need to be more ruthless in front of goal, paying for wasted opportunities in Dortmund and also missing chances to make this a more convincing margin of victory.
England will not find this failing too expensive in a friendly or against mediocre opposition – but it could cost them if the flaws are on show against higher-class in a competitive environment.
It is why Defoe’s marksmanship is currently required and why the return of a fit and in-form Harry Kane will be so welcome.