LONDON — Whatever setbacks and humiliations England’s players have endured in recent years, they only have to look to neighbor Scotland to see how much worse it could be.
They are in the same World Cup qualifying group, but Saturday’s games showed they are far from being rivals on the pitch.
With its third different manager in as many matches, England experienced some frustration in only managing to beat Malta 2-0 at the start of Gareth Southgate’s interim reign.
But England’s turmoil is eclipsed by Scotland’s predicament as it chases its first finals since the 1998 World Cup. Scotland came close to being upset by Lithuania in Glasgow on Saturday, avoiding losing to a team ranked 73 places below them thanks only to a late goal salvaging a 1-1 draw.
Scotland, which beat 10-man Malta 5-1 in its Group F opener last month, fell behind to Lithuania when captain Fedor Cernych held off Grant Hanley and played a one-two with Vykintas Slivka before striking into the net.
But substitute James McArthur came to Scotland’s rescue in the 89th minute, heading in the equalizer after connecting with a long throw-in.
Only the top team qualifies for the finals in Russia, and Scotland already trails Group F leader England by two points. Slovenia is behind Scotland on goal difference in third after beating Slovakia 1-0.
ENGLAND 2, MALTA 0
Southgate enjoyed a straightforward but unchallenging introduction to senior international management as a second new England era in a month opened.
Daniel Sturridge’s header from Jordan Henderson’s cross, and Dele Alli’s strike in the first half sealed the win, with England lacking dynamism and urgency up front against the 176th-ranked visitors.
“We had chances for it to be more, so that’s the one disappointment in the game — that we didn’t get more goals,” Henderson said. “I felt as though we got a little sloppy as the game went on.”
Regardless, this performance is unlikely to be a factor when the Football Association decides whether to entrust Southgate with the job as Sam Allardyce’s permanent successor.
Southgate was rapidly promoted from the under-21s last week when Allardyce was dismissed over comments in a newspaper sting that left the FA doubting his integrity for its top job.
Allardyce was in charge only 67 days, replacing Roy Hodgson after England’s miserable European Championship loss to Iceland.
Allardyce won the first match on the road to the 2018 World Cup in Slovakia last month, but never got a chance to lead his team out at England’s national stadium as a result of his unguarded comments to undercover reporters. A British newspaper’s video showed Allardyce appearing to offer advice to fictitious businessmen on how to sidestep an outlawed player transfer practice, and also negotiating a 400,000 pound (about $500,000) public-speaking contract.
Southgate, whose only previous senior managerial role ended seven years ago with Middlesbrough, is viewed as encouragingly less colorful than the brash Allardyce for such a prestigious, high-profile job.
But he has only four games as interim manager, and judgment of Southgate’s credentials is to come. After traveling to Slovenia for the next qualifier on Tuesday, England hosts Scotland and Spain next month in north London.