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Ponderous England finally open new era with a late winner

It was another painful game for Kane, and not just because of Skrtel\'s brutal behaviour, as he touched the ball just five times in the opening half hour.

Published: 05th September 2016 08:17 AM  |   Last Updated: 05th September 2016 08:17 AM   |  A+A-

Soccer WCup 2018 Slov_Mukh

Slovakia's Michal Duris, center, challenges for a ball with England's Adam Lallana, right, as Danny Rose, left, falls down during their World Cup Group F qualifying soccer match in Trnava, Slovakia. | AP

Sixty-nine days since such a brittle fear gripped England that they crashed out of Euro 2016 to Iceland, the doom-laden headlines were looming again.

This is just the start of the qualifying campaign for the next World Cup but so unconvincing and ponderous were England at times yesterday against Slovakia that it felt like this new beginning, this new dawn, might have an all too familiar feel to it.

"The Journey Begins Here" is the England slogan for this campaign and it felt like a long and rocky road until Adam Lallana struck the late, late winning goal that thankfully got the Sam Allardyce era off to a winning start.

Given how slow it had all been, it was perhaps appropriate that Lallana scored so late - the 95th minute - with England finally capitalising on the advantage they were given with Martin Skrtel's deserved sending-off with more than half an hour to go.

Yet, against the 10 men, England continued to labour, even if, in fairness, they did attempt to go for it and perhaps deserved their reward. They certainly got better when Dele Alli came on to play in the No?10 role that we had been told - or thought we had been told - would be allotted to Wayne Rooney who, instead, played so deep at times that he was almost standing alongside goalkeeper Joe Hart.

So much attention had focused on Hart, but the "dodgy keeper" here belonged to the hosts, with England at last exploiting Matus Kozacik's vulnerability as Lallana found the space to squeeze a low shot that trickled through the goalkeeper's legs.

It was, in Lallana's 27th appearance for England, his first goal for his country.

It also marked Allardyce's first goal as England manager, of course, and claimed the three vital points in Group F - which also contains Scotland, Lithuania, Slovenia and Malta - in what represented the most difficult tie on the road to Russia. At the very least he proved to be a lucky manager.

Or a manager who gained some fortune after being handed a lucky coin on the morning of the match that he then played with throughout his press conference.

This is not to blame Allardyce. Not remotely. Instead it is to put into perspective the size of the task he faces and perhaps how deep are some of the scars that these

England players - eight of the starters had lined up against Iceland in June - carry.

But, then, just as Roy Hodgson will never be remembered as the England coach with the best qualifying record - he is the man who could not get past a World Cup group stage and who lost to Iceland - then this performance will matter not a jot should Allardyce do well in the 2018 World Cup.

England - just about - deserved to win but it is probably unlikely they would have done so had Skrtel not been booked - rightly - for elbowing Harry Kane in the first half and then received a second yellow card for stamping on the striker after the break. That warranted a red card in itself.

It was another painful game for Kane, and not just because of Skrtel's brutal behaviour, as he touched the ball just five times in the opening half hour.

Nothing proved more surprising than Rooney's role as the captain earned his 116th England cap to overtake David Beckham's outfield record. Allardyce had implied he would be playing him as his No?10 but he was back in midfield - starting even deeper in the centre of a 4-1-4-1 and then back into the two in a 4-2-3-1 when the formation changed.

Later Allardyce said Rooney could basically play where he wanted - such is his importance - which may be indulgence or may be clever psychology. Time will tell.

There were pluses - and not least the result - in the performances of John Stones, in Lallana and, also, in Raheem Sterling who appeared to overcome the lack of belief that so crushed him at the Euros to, at least, take the fight to the opposition.

Allardyce had also called for fun but, as a starter, this was flat. There were few punchlines. In Trnava this was a right palaver against Slovakia, who were decimated by injury and controversy with key players missing.

Yes, Slovakia are obdurate. Yes, they boast an impressive home record and yes they parked the bus as England dominated possession but did not quite dominate the match in the way it was spun afterwards.

But the result meant that Allardyce became the ninth successive England manager to get off to a winning start and the way he understandably punched the air in relief, then frantically called on his players to regroup, spoke volumes. Welcome to the Impossible Job.

It was a forgettable first-half. There was a cross-shot by Sterling but the best opportunity fell to Slovakia when Danny Rose carelessly lost the ball inside his own area, with Dusan Svento only just failing to meet Michal Duris's cross.

Allardyce wanted his players to move the ball quicker after the break and they attempted to do so but there was nothing of note until the 66th minute when Rooney's curling shot was shovelled out unconvincingly by Kozacik, who then shuffled back to tip over Eric Dier's effort. That should have confirmed the goalkeeper's weaknesses and he was beaten when Lallana drove the ball powerfully only for it to cannon off a post.

Allardyce, rightly, turned the screw. Substitute Theo Walcott had the ball in the net but was pulled up for offside. It was a marginal call although the ball did just come off another substitute, Daniel Sturridge.

That seemed to be it. But, one last time, England retrieved the ball as their dog-tired opponents failed to clear and Lallana fashioned the chance.

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