England offer reminder of 2022 World Cup credentials with simple but sublime Hungary win


    It was a calculated gamble from Gareth Southgate to give John Stones his first start last night since the Euro 2020 final against Italy 53 days ago with Manchester City having given him an extended break after the tournament.

    It turned out to be a continuation of his holiday with an evening of leisure time as England’s miserly defence were allowed to put their feet up in Budapest and watch the show at the other end.

    Hungary struggled to gain any possession foothold in the game and put pressure on an England rearguard which was the meanest in town at the Euros, conceding just twice all tournament. With Jordan Pickford not having a save to make in the first 75 minutes, that reputation was unlikely to be tarnished last night.

    England had reverted to a back four – the Manchester merger – after the three-man unit Gareth Southgate had picked for the final and they looked comfortable to be back in each other’s company.

    Stones did cause a minor flutter when he allowed the ball to bounce over his head in the 19th minute and onto Roland Sallai outside the England penalty area but he reacted quickly to tidy up his error.

    Maybe it was a way of involving himself in the game. All the action was in the other half.

    Nothing much in the way of drama happened before the break but the wearing-down process had its rewards afterwards as a confident and competent England showed why they came so close to a major trophy in the summer.

    Raheem Sterling, Harry Kane, Harry Maguire and Declan Rice all scored as England ran out 4-0 winners on an excellent night in the Hungarian capital.

    What was supposed to be their most difficult game of the qualifying phase was rendered a walk in the park – albeit a noisy one.

    Stones joined England’s swelling 50-cap club last night in Budapest and can have enjoyed few more leisurely armchair rides.

    He made his debut back in 2014 against Peru with 15 minutes off the bench in a 3-0 win at Wembley for a side captained by Steven Gerrard. There were no survivors from that game in the England starting line-up last night.

    As Stones will testify, the England environment has changed radically from those distant days under Roy Hodgson.

    Under Southgate the team is a team in every sense of the word and has reached a World Cup semi-final, a Nations League semi-final and a Euros final.

    They have their sights set high. For good reason.

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    Southgate made a great play of the fact that England were the youngest side in the last 16 at the Euros during the summer but the experience they are steadily accumulating will be invaluable in 14 months’ time in Qatar, assuming they reach the World Cup finals.

    There were four half-centurions in the starting line-up against Hungary with Stones joining Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Kyle Walker.

    Before too long Harry Maguire and Jordan Pickford will have reached the mark too.

    This England side is learning all the time. The lesson from Thursday night? Hungary could not lay a glove on them.

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