Gareth Southgate lauded match-winner Marcus Rashford after showing maturity Dele Alli lacked against Slovakia, with the midfielder’s rude gesture overshadowing a win that puts England on the brink of World Cup qualification.
Wembley bore witness to an entertaining Group F encounter on Monday evening, with things getting off to the worst possible start as Stanislav Lobotka broke through to fire the visitors ahead.
Rashford was culpable for the opener but rallied manfully, following up his assist for Eric Dier by firing in from distance to secure England a spirited 2-1 victory, putting them five points clear of second-placed Slovakia.
Things could have been so different had Kyle Walker been sent off on a night when Alli’s middle-finger salute made ripples, although Southgate was more interested in the impact of his 19-year-old forward.
“No (it didn’t surprise me),” Southgate said of Rashford’s response to his difficult start.
“Having worked with him, he’s such a mature character. The start surprised me, but I felt the switch of wings was important as well – it allowed him a slightly different defensive role, and he adapted very well to that.
“His maturity is excellent. You look at him and he’s never in awe of the occasion, he doesn’t have any fear of anything, although, to be fair, I don’t think the team did. I thought they responded well.
“He’s still a work in progress, as we saw at the beginning of the game, but he’s still getting stronger and his impact in taking people on, in getting us up the pitch in counter-attacks, was not only huge for the team but the crowd as well. He had a huge impact on the game.”
Southgate also praised Alli’s performance despite his ill-advised decision to flick his middle finger – something that may well be frowned upon by FIFA.
Irked not to win a free-kick after a collision with Martin Skrtel on the edge of the box, when play was eventually halted TV footage showed the Tottenham midfielder swearing.
Southgate downplayed talk his gesture was aimed at referee Clement Turpin, with Alli claiming instead to have been messing around with Kyle Walker.
“I’ve not seen it but I’ve been made aware of it,” Southgate said. “Dele and Kyle were mucking about, and Dele has gestured towards Kyle.
“I don’t know what’s been visible on the pitch, or what the angle of the pitch was.
“The pair of them have a strange way of communicating, but that’s what they’ve said when it’s been raised.”
Alli took to Twitter shortly after the match to try and put an end to talk about who the gesture was aimed at.
The England midfielder posted: “Just to clarify, the gesture tonight was a joke between me and my good friend Kyle Walker! Apologies for any offence caused! Great win 2nite.”
Earlier this year FIFA hit Lionel Messi with a four-match ban for allegedly verbally abusing a match official. The Argentina international served one game and had his suspension overturned on appeal.
Southgate will be hoping to avoid any sanctions – and a repeat of Alli’s immaturity.
“I’ve literally just gone and asked him quickly, so, for me, what it obviously does was detract from probably what was his best performance for us since I’ve been the manager,” he said.
“His work without the ball was top drawer, he really took intelligent positions, pressed them all over and his work with the ball was excellent.
“He looked a real threat, played people in, made fantastic runs in behind the opposition defence, so hopefully we’ll be talking about that once everything else is cleared up.”
Victory leaves England in a strong position, while Slovakia will look to secure second spot.
“All in all, we did well, but England controlled the game,” Slovakia manager Jan Kozak said. “They were better than us, especially in the second half.”
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