LONDON (AP) — England began its path to the 2022 World Cup with the easiest of wins against the planet’s lowest-ranked national team in an empty stadium.
The 2018 semifinalists swept to a 5-0 victory against a San Marino team that struggled to get the ball in their penalty area, raising fresh questions about Europe’s minnows being a part of the main qualifying groups.
“If I’m being ultra critical we probably should have scored more,” England manager Gareth Southgate said.
Actual challenges will come later for Southgate in Group I, as evident in Budapest where Poland came from behind to draw 3-3 against Hungary with Robert Lewandowski completing the comeback.
Southgate was able to give his captain the night off as Harry Kane stayed on the bench throughout, filling the role of England fan at an empty Wembley.
That created the platform for Ollie Watkins to score on his debut off the inside of the post in the 83rd minute to complete a rout that began with James Ward-Prowse sweeping in his first England goal on his fifth appearance in the 21st. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s double — a first-half header and a close-range finish after the break — marked the forward’s first competitive goals for his country and Raheem Sterling took his Three Lions tally to 14 with a deflected near-post finish in the 31st minute
“All day in the hotel I was just thinking about, ‘I hope I get a chance and just enjoy it and get that opportunity to potentially score,’ but I didn’t know it would happen,” said Watkins, who has climbed from playing in the semiprofessional leagues to the Premier League with Aston Villa. “It’s been a good journey. I just feel honored that I can come out here.”
San Marino, ranked 210th, didn’t give Nick Pope a single save to make in the England goal. But there were a string of impressive stops by goalkeeper Elia Benedettini, who plays in the third tier in Italy — the country surrounding the city-state.
San Marino has now conceded 42 goals in seven losses to England but it did manage to find the net once against the Three Lions in 1993.
“In certain situations we didn’t try to complicate England’s lives,” San Marino coach Franco Varrella said through a translator.
Former England striker Gary Lineker noted during Thursday’s game that it was “absurd” San Marino and other small teams don’t need to go through a pre-qualifying campaign to earn the right to play bigger nations like fourth-ranked England.
“It’s not the level of game that’s going to dictate how well we do in the summer,” Southgate said looking ahead to the rescheduled European Championship that ends at Wembley in July. “But you’ve got the respect the game in front of you and approach it in the right way.”
England also has a group game against Andorra, the tiny nation ranked 138th by FIFA which lost 1-0 to Albania on Thursday. First, though, England heads to Tirana for its next game on Sunday as part of this triple-header before welcoming Poland to Wembley next Wednesday as it chases the only automatic qualification place.
More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/hub/soccer and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports