James Lawton: It's a long road to Rio but young guns ensure Hodgson is entitled to swagger
In truth, Moldova looked a shade flattered to be ranked 141 in world
For a little while England were so pulverising you had to wish life could always be like this – but then how often are Moldova available for services to the broken psyche of a once serious football nation? Twice in this World Cup campaign, of course, but it could just be they have already served their purpose.
For a few fleeting moments in the first half they looked like a team who might just stitch together enough coherent football to justify the now time-honoured claim, this time made by England manager Roy Hodgson, that there are no longer any easy games in world football, even against a team who looked a shade flattered to be ranked 141 in the world.
In fact there are and England had proved it in 32 minutes with two goals by Frank Lampard, one from a distinctly soft penalty, and another by Jermain Defoe. However, if this was essentially a push-over, Hodgson can only have been encouraged by the weight and the wit that some of his younger contenders applied to the task.
The most arresting contribution was from Arsenal's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. The new England manager has already displayed plenty of faith in the youngster and last night we saw a performance that compressed his most striking virtues, the most encouraging of which is his willingness to take responsibility in almost any situation. Moldova were still putting the pieces together after the early Lampard assault on their nerve when Oxlade-Chamberlain, with both power and fine judgement, put away Defoe for the third goal. But then in this mood the Arsenal midfielder would have applied considerable pressure on teams occupying higher places in the league table of world football.
So, too, would Tom Cleverley, whose return from long injury – and re-ignited hopes of establishing himself in Manchester United's midfield – is maybe another reason why Hodgson walked from the bench at the end with something distinctly resembling a swagger of well-being. It may well be that he faces two years of picking a number of men from the margins of the Premier League but there were enough reasons last night for him to believe that a mood of distinct optimism might have been created in a dressing room which has not exactly enjoyed such a wall-to-wall facility in recent years.
Moldova, still looking for their first goal this calendar year, were no doubt hopeless by almost any standards but then you don't have to ransack your memory too deeply for the times when England had their struggles against teams of hardly any greater pretensions.
There was, it has to be allowed, an engaging briskness about this England performance and when Danny Welbeck and Theo Walcott appeared in the second half, and James Milner and Leighton Baines added the fourth and fifth goals, there was a distinct sense of a team which had been given some encouraging incentives. How well this buoyancy of spirit stands up to the potentially dangerous challenge of Ukraine at Wembley next Tuesday night is of course the next significant question. In Donetsk a few months ago, Ukraine gave England as much serious embarrassment as they could handle and Hodgson will be hoping for infinitely more authority next week.
It does not, on this latest evidence, seem anything like an outlandish request. Hodgson's reputation is for making the best of limited means, of applying the old professional understanding of the art of the possible in almost any situation. Despite a disappointing conclusion against Italy in that quarter-final in Kiev a few months ago, Hodgson had covered some promising ground very quickly. Thrashing Moldova may not leap out as compelling evidence of a further move in that direction, but there was more than a hint of some young players measuring themselves for new challenges... and quite liking the fit.
It is maybe true that the Road to Rio is already storing up quite a number of ambushes but the possibility of one in a distinctly obscure corner of the game could hardly have been dismissed with more authority last night.
This is an England team hardly in the foothills of achievement but they gave the impression that they might just have something of a future. In a place which might have provoked some embarrassment, it was reason enough for some guarded celebration.
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