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Gareth Southgate says England’s players fell short of the standards they “need to be at” against Malta, but has no concerns about their attitude and aptitude ahead of next summer’s European Championship.
Nobody at Wembley expected anything other than a victory from the side ranked No.4 in the world against the one nestled between Fiji and Bermuda in 171st.
But already-qualified England made hard work of a straightforward Group C qualifying assignment on Friday, with Enrico Pepe’s own goal giving the hosts a lead in a first half in which they failed to muster a single shot on target.
Harry Kane added another after a rare moment of quality interplay in the second half as Southgate’s side limped to a 2-0 victory that all but assures their place among the top seeds at next month’s Euro 2024 draw.
“We didn’t start the game well,” the England boss said. “I’ve been in football for 35 years and if you don’t start well, it’s really difficult to pick it up.
“We needed, of course, to show better quality with the ball but also we were a bit stretched without it and a little bit disjointed in our pressing at times.
“We were not the level we would want to be at. We were not the level that we need to be at.
“But, equally, this group of players have been exceptional and I’m not going to start getting into their ribs too much about a performance like tonight.
“We made a few changes, we didn’t hit the levels we would have liked to have but they managed to win the game.
“Not in the style we’d have liked for the supporters but, in the end, we’ve won comfortably, as we should.”
England now head onto Skopje to complete their Euro 2024 qualification campaign against North Macedonia as preparations continue for next summer.
Glory in Germany is the sole focus and Southgate dismissed the suggestion that his players taking their foot off the gas at home to Malta was a worrying sign.
“No, it’s not a worry because I think sometimes when players have so many matches they almost self-regulate,” Southgate said.
“I’ve been a player. You know that there’s a certain level you need to hit to beat Italy here and you know that you don’t have to hit that level to win today’s game.
“Although you would think that everybody would be at the same level all the time, that’s not the reality of football.
“I’ve played in those matches myself and there are nights where subconsciously you just do enough to win and I think that’s a little bit where we were tonight.”
England were below par for the most part on Friday, but Southgate still saw things he liked in their final home match of an unbeaten year.
“We scored a lovely second goal and I think there were some individual performances that were very positive,” he added.
“I thought Trent (Alexander-Arnold) was very, very good (in midfield). Him and Phil (Foden) in the first half were the two that looked like opening things up.
“I thought Marc Guehi had a very mature performance again. He’s really growing as an international footballer.
“It was lovely to get Cole Palmer on and give him a feel of things and I thought he looked really very comfortable in the environment.”
Southgate’s side now has 19 points from their seven games with Italy, who beat North Macedonia, and Ukraine on 13.
A second-half goal from Denmark midfielder Thomas Delaney ensured his side’s qualification as the Danes secured a 2-1 home win over Slovenia that ensures they will top Group H.
The Danes top the group on 22 points from nine games, three ahead of Slovenia, who cannot overtake them even if they beat third-placed Kazakhstan, who have 18 points, in their final game on Monday due to their inferior head-to-head record against the Danes.
Wing back Joakim Maehle gave the home side the lead with a superb half-volley in the 26th minute, but a brilliant free kick from Erik Janza four minutes later put the visitors back on level terms.
The 32-year-old Delaney, who missed last year’s World Cup finals in Qatar due to injury, struck the winner nine minutes into the second half, blasting home from close range after the Slovenians failed to clear a corner.
Federico Chiesa scored two first-half goals as defending champions Italy beat North Macedonia 5-2 to gain a measure of revenge and move closer to qualifying.
Italy now need only a draw against Ukraine on Monday to secure a spot at next year’s tournament in Germany.
North Macedonia kept Italy from qualifying for last year’s World Cup with a 1-0 playoff win over the Azzurri in Palermo.
But North Macedonia had already been eliminated before their latest visit to Italy and the Azzurri quickly took control when fullback Matteo Darmian scored 17 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico for his first national team goal in more than eight years.
Chiesa scored his first by using one touch to launch in a long shot before scoring another with a looping effort in first-half added time.
Substitute Jani Atanasov pulled one back for North Macedonia with a header early in the second half and then scored again with a shot that deflected in off Italy defender Francesco Acerbi to make it a nervy ending for coach Luciano Spalletti’s team.
But Giacomo Raspadori finished off a counterattack for Italy in the 81st and Stephan El Shaarawy added another in stoppage time to restore the three-goal advantage.
Italy and Ukraine now each have 13 points but Italy hold the advantage after beating Ukraine 2-1 in September.
Czech Republic midfielder Tomas Soucek cancelled out a first-half opener by Poland’s Jakub Piotrowski to earn an 1-1 away draw, with both the Czechs and Moldova still able to qualify.
Poland took the lead in the 38th minute through Piotrowski but midfielder Soucek equalised after the break, prompting Poland to search for a winner.
Albania, coached by Brazilian Sylvinho, confirmed their spot in Germany with a 1-1 draw with Moldova.
Veteran forward Sokol Cikalleshi’s 25th-minute penalty helped secure the point.
Moldova equalised in the 87th, but a point was enough for Albania to ensure a top-two finish in Group E, having outperformed higher-ranked Poland and the Czech Republic to ensure they’ll play at just a second Euros after debuting at the 2016 edition.