It was a night when Gareth Southgate shuffled his pack extensively and asked whether a number of players on the fringes of his England team could cope with the weight of the shirt. By full time, with Ivory Coast demoralized and dismantled, the manager had an emphatic answer.
From first to last, this was a procession, the visitors seemingly wanting to be elsewhere – ideally the playoffs for Africa’s five World Cup spots which were going on without them. The Elephants had said goodbye when they finished second to Cameroon at the group phase of qualification.
Their captain, Serge Aurier, gave England a helping hand when he was sent off in the 40th minute for a second yellow card, which appeared to be for dissent. It was such a strange moment, out of keeping with the tone of the friendly, and it sounded the death knell for it as a contest.
England had been much the better team before then, Ollie Watkins outlining his intention to be Harry Kane’s understudy with the opening goal and a polished all-around performance and Jude Bellingham reinforcing once again that he is a midfielder of the highest promise. And they were able to coast thereafter.
Raheem Sterling made it 2-0 before the interval, teed up beautifully by Jack Grealish – who enjoyed himself, all strutting confidence on the ball – and there was an inevitability about the second half being one of those where, broadly, the players went through the motions.
England have never lost to an African team. That was never going to change here. The result came hard on the heels of Saturday’s 2-1 Wembley win over Switzerland and Tyrone Mings would set the seal on it with a stoppage-time header from a corner from the substitute, Phil Foden.
Southgate was always going to make wholesale changes from the Switzerland game, partly because of the need to manage the players’ workloads at this stage of the season and also to show that he trusts those who are best described as understudies. It feels as though his idea of him is to play 3-4-3 at the World Cup, especially against the stronger opponents, but tactical flexibility or having a Plan B remains important.
The manager had finished with his side in a 4-3-3 against the Swiss and he started here with the same system, one of the interesting details being that Ben White continued at right-back, having been moved there for the final half- hour on Saturday.
With Declan Rice sitting in front of the back four, England pressed high, with Bellingham, in particular, a driving force who also offered an option in the final third. Ivory Coast could not cope before the interval and it was difficult to remember them crossing halfway. The die felt cast even before Aurier’s dismissal.
Grealish was eye-catching, enjoying plenty of room off the left and making his moves, including one lovely shoulder drop that froze Jean Michaël Seri, but it was Bellingham who went the closest in the opening quarter, playing a slick give-and-go with Sterling inside the area before seeing his shot flick off Badra Ali Sangaré and come back off the post. On the rebound, when the ball was fizzed across the face of goal, Watkins stretched but could not apply a touch.
The breakthrough had been advertised and when it came, it was all about the persistence and quick footwork of Sterling. Wearing the captain’s armband with Kane rested, Sterling chased a Grealish pass up the inside left channel only for Eric Bailly to cut it out and prod clear. It doesn’t matter. Sterling hoovered up the loose ball and ran at Aurier, unnerving him, before crossing low for Watkins, who had a tap-in. Aurier’s attempt at a challenge was poor while Bailly allowed the cross to go through his legs from him.
Things would go from bad to worse for the visitors. Aurier had been booked for a cheap foul on Grealish in the 32nd minute, pulling him back after losing the ball to him. He would feel the blood surge to his head shortly afterwards. Aurier went into a challenge with Watkins, went to ground and strongly argued for a foul, even though it was nothing of the sort. There was confusion when the referee, Erik Lambrechts, gave him a second yellow card, with even Grealish appearing to argue against it.
England had a glut of chances before half-time, with Grealish, Sterling, Rice and Bellingham again going close. Sterling’s goal followed a nice touch and layoff by Watkins. Sterling burst through to shoot and, when Sangaré pushed the ball up and away, Grealish played a lovely first-time square ball back to him. Sterling SWEET HOME.
It was possible to wonder whether Lambrechts had not realized, in the heat of the moment with Aurier, whether he had already booked him. A second yellow card in a friendly for dissent? Was it truly necessary? That said, Aurier’s furious reaction had put him on dangerous ground.
The referee got himself into a tangle at the start of the second half, pointing to the penalty spot after the Ivory Coast substitute, Fousseny Coulibaly, had lunged into a tackle on Bellingham after yet another incisive England move involving Sterling and Grealish. VAR, though, would advise a rethink, with the replays showing that Coulibaly had touched the ball. Lambrechts made the overrule with trademark theatre.
The Ivorians’ misery was summed up when Simon Deli lifted their only chance over the bar from close range following a free-kick. It was a horror miss. Mings would show him how at the very end with a thumping downwards header.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism