England opens World Cup qualifying by beating San Marino 5-0

LONDON — 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.

England won 5-0 over a San Marino team that struggled to get the ball in the England penalty area, raising fresh questions about Europe’s minnows being a part of the main qualifying groups.

Actual challenges will come later for England manager Gareth Southgate in Group I, as evident in Budapest where Poland twice 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 to complete a rout that began with James Ward-Prowse netting his first England goal on his fifth appearance. Dominic Calvert-Lewin’s double marked the forward’s first competitive goals for his country and Raheem Sterling took his Three Lions tally to 14.

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.

Still, 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.

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.

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