England scored three late goals to overcome Malta’s stubborn resistance and stay in control of their qualifying group for next summer’s World Cup.
Gareth Southgate’s side struggled to break down physical, resilient opponents and it was 53 minutes before Harry Kane broke the deadlock with a calm close-range finish from Dele Alli’s pass.
As Malta tired, England exerted their authority and Ryan Bertrand sealed the win with a long-range shot that slipped past Malta goalkeeper Andrew Hogg with five minutes left.
England – who are now two points ahead of Slovakia as they prepare to meet at Wembley on Monday – began to carve Malta open with ease and added two more in injury time, substitute Danny Welbeck steering in Kane’s pass before the striker added his second with virtually the final kick of the game from Marcus Rashford’s delivery.
No-thrills England flattered by scoreline
England’s performance must be placed in the context of opponents who are physical, resilient, organised – and ultimately the scoreline had a convincing appearance.
This was still, however, a largely colourless display until Malta, one of the minnows of the game with a world ranking of 190 and with a record of six defeats from six Group F games, tired and conceded those three late goals.
It does not make for the easiest task but this was, in large part, a conservative and uninspired England display, lacking spark and relying on Spurs pair Alli and Kane to finally make the breakthrough.
England opened brightly, with early wasted chances for Raheem Sterling and a Kane header that was well saved by Hogg, but then became bogged down in mediocrity, a state they only escaped in the final 10 minutes.
And even England’s set-up had an over-conservative appearance. Was there really any need for Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and West Bromwich Albion’s Jake Livermore providing the midfield base against a Malta side whose main, perhaps only, ambition was damage limitation?
This was a win that keeps England on course for the World Cup in Russia, with hopes of taking another important step against Slovakia.
Southgate’s side, however, have provided little compelling evidence in this group that they will make a serious impact at the sharp end of the finals, should they qualify.
There is still time for England to develop, but this has been a campaign short on thrills and one not designed to send fear through the first tier of European clubs.