Six-hitters within touching distance of South Africa
A foregone conclusion? Or a truly humbling result that brought Fabio Capello's perfect run to an end? It didn't take long for the more likely outcome to manifest itself.
With a 10-point lead, England's place in South Africa is all but confirmed and the news that the FA is already scouting venues for altitude training near Johannesburg reflects comfort in not repeating the horrors of Steve McClaren's disastrous reign. They may be more uncertain about their TV deal, though Setanta Sports News defiantly played in the press room ahead of the game, yet the expensive Italian has them headed for the biggest stage. The only international wilderness with which England will be acquainting themselves next June is called the veldt.
On an evening when fans were stuggling to reach Wembley due to a strike by London Underground workers, England's players were hoping they would not be matching RMT union leader Bob Crow in the unpopularity stakes. Games against such minnow teams have often given rise to England's full-voiced "boo boy" contingent showing off their unpleasant wares. John Barnes felt the brunt of them against San Marino in 1994 and it was a Euro qualifier against Andorra in March 2007 that saw all eleven players given the bird in Barcelona, with special treatment meted out to Frank Lampard.
This time, a professional performance that belied a long season saw England kill off any latent insurrection as three first-half strikes ended the contest. Any boos were reserved for Andorran gamesmanship, which was unusually rife considering the game was decided after a matter of minutes.
Plenty of fans had made an early dash to a venue that was heralded for its transport links on its relaunch two years ago. The problems caused by the Tube's closure were further compounded by overground rail networks' decision to prevent trains stopping in the Wembley area on the grounds of health and safety, a move greeted by one fan thus: "I don't know any other nation that would close a station because it's too busy."
Such factors and the hardly gravitational pull of Andorra's collection of butchers, bakers and candlestick makers made it a low-key occasion watched by a below-par attendance of 57,987.
It was Andorra that Capello's team faced in their first Group Six qualifier in September, a shaky beginning only saved by the introduction of Joe Cole, a forgotten man in the light of his long-term injury. David Beckham, making his first competitive start for two years, the hundredth time he has been in England's starting eleven, was handed the task of providing the ammo for Peter Crouch and Wayne Rooney to attack what started as a five-man Andorran defence but soon transformed into a ten-man effort. That supply largely came from set-pieces; Theo Walcott continued on the right wing while Beckham manned the centre of midfield in place of the suspended Gareth Barry.
Junior partner Walcott supplied Frank Lampard with England's second after a sluggish spell had followed an initial burst that could have seen Wayne Rooney grab a hat-trick in the opening three minutes. After first having a measured chip of the variety he obviously enjoys well saved and then crashing a point-blank header against the bar, Rooney was forced to settle for a single strike after a weighted nod past Andorran keeper Koldo Alvarez. Lampard's goal was the signal for concerted pressure that eventually resulted in Rooney's second, a tap-in from a crossed ball from man-of-the-match right-back Glen Johnson, enjoying the freedom of the London borough of Brent in the absence of an Andorran attack.
The withdrawals of Rooney, a barely sweating Steven Gerrard and Ashley Cole took away some of England's impetus. It was left to lesser lights, those not so sure of a business-class seat on a flight to Jo'burg, to increase goal difference. Jermain Defoe, Ashley Young and Joleon Lescott all spurned early second-half chances. Defoe had looked over eager and lacking in the confidence he usually shows at club level before ending his obvious tension with a well directed header in the 73rd minute to make it four. Two minutes later, further smiles were had by the Tottenham striker when he pounced on the fumbling of a Beckham free-kick.
Thereafter, the plaudits were aimed at Beckham every time he went to take one of a multitude of corners. Amusement was had as Crouch almost shamefacedly nicked in the sixth as Andorra began to pine for the Pyrenees. From that point on, the stadium began to understandably empty as fans headed for the execrable travel options on offer to them.
Three points from September's home game with Croatia will book a different kind of travel for Capello's men; a long-haul flight to the Rainbow Nation. The summer of 2009 is finally here and the beaches of the world beckon after a season that for substitute Ashley Young began in Odense on July 18. He and his colleagues can now take a deserved rest.
This time next year, they will want no such thing and can expect to be spending much of the summer of 2010 in South Africa.
• England watch: Any worries about the end-of-season qualifiers are now gone as England have crashed in eleven goals from two rather easy matches. Glen Johnson in particular has benefitted from the extra experience. It would take a reverse of Devon Loch proportions for any hotel deposits made by the FA to be lost. Capello's been worth the money so far. Seven competitive wins in a single season is already a record.
• Andorra watch: Celebrating 15 years in the international frame before the game, David Rodrigo's team set up with a throwback five-man defence that soon converted to all ten outfield players once it became clear that damage limitation was the order of the day. Such was their lack of attack that every touch by lonely England 'keeper Robert Green was greeted with an ironic cheer. That a hugely ambitious effort from territory that reminded of Beckham at Selhurst in 1996 from Sergi Moreno was their sole effort on goal reflected how far from an international team they are and will likely remain.
• Beckham watch: One hundred starts is some achievement. Much has been made of a new-found fitness level and 90 minutes were duly completed. However, despite the use of the legendary Milanello training complex treatment, the former captain remains bereft of pace . The filling of a hole in a tooth has reportedly augmented his balance yet he will still never be able to revive the all-action middle-distance running he displayed during his 1998-2002 peak.
• The other boys of '66: The non-playing squad members from England's 1966 World Cup final win were introduced to fans at half-time. Jimmy Greaves, recently revived on UK TV screens, got the loudest cheer of a bunch who have finally received medals for their efforts of 43 summers ago. The eleven men had earlier been handed their medals at No.10 Downing Street by Prime Minister Gordon Brown; not all good, then.