San Marino serenely beaten after delaying the inevitable
Residents of the Most Serene Republic of San Marino, to honour the country with its full title, no doubt treat news of a drubbing on the football field with suitable serenity. They have, after all, had plenty of practice and would have expected nothing else from last night's rabbit shoot.
The only unpredictable element of such occasions is the time of first goal, which was unexpectedly delayed here, to the increasing restlessness of the Wembley crowd, and the final damage. Otherwise, there were no surprises. The visitors strung two thick blue lines across the pitch in a 5-4-1 formation, the unfortunate one being not so much a lone attacker as a lonely first line of defence.
Occasionally when the ball was punted forward somwhere in his general direction, Rinaldi Danilo managed a touch, looked up and saw nothing but white shirts all around. Given half a chance up against Gary Cahill as England pushed forward with greater recklessness in the second half, he miscued embarrassingly.
On average the Sammarinese lose internationals by six goals – as they had done the opening group match at home to Montenegro.
In competitive away games it is seven goals; so when Roy Hodgson's labouring team went 35 minutes without beating that hardy creature, the regular goalkeeper Aldo Simonici, England were looking below average in every sense. For too long they attempted to clear a pathway through the centre like a commuter seeking a seat on a Jubilee Line train; receiving just a many prods and pokes in the process.
Even on the London Underground in rush-hour passengers do not normally have their legs taken from under them and it took Simonici's lunge at Danny Welbeck, leading to Wayne Rooney's penalty, before Wembley – incredibly, a sold-out Wembley – could relax a little. At that point we were being asked to believe that the home side had a mere 56 per cent of possession, which said more about such statistics than the reality. By the end it was a more believable 85 per cent, though even that meant that San Marino had the ball for almost a quarter of an hour of the game. Joe Hart, a bystander, would have disagreed.
Their greatest former player, Massimo Bonini of Juventus, said of his countrymen in yesterday's Independent: "they collapse after an hour or so."
This time they kept the score down to two for nine minutes longer before Rooney and Welbeck added a second little double after the break. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain brought England closer to a par score, avoiding the sort of embarrassment that lasted longer for Scotland – twice held goalless for an hour – and both Wales and the Republic of Ireland, who in 2007 won by only 2-1, the latter when Stephen Ireland scored in the 94th minute.
England's previous wins in these encounters were by 6-0 and 7-1 and sitting high up in the stand last night, as opposed to fretting on the touchline in 1993, Graham Taylor, the former manager, could have pointed out that even his team, doomed not to qualify for the World Cup finals, had found the going easier; despite Jonathan Pearce in his local radio commentary famously not having finished reading the plug for the programme sponsor before the ball was in David Seaman's net. Davide Gualtieiri, who put it there in Bologna, still holds the record for fastest World Cup goal at eight seconds.
Next for San Marino is a home game with Moldova, who until last night were actually below them on goal difference. It is in theory their easiest group game; but results over the course of 115 matches as an international football nation have shown that such things are relative.
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