England’s striker Jermain Defoe (L) celebrates with teammates after scoring his team’s first goal during the World Cup 2018 qualification football match between England and Lithuania at Wembley Stadium in London on March 26, 2017. / AFP PHOTO / Adrian DENNIS /
England manager Gareth Southgate said there was no reason why Jermain Defoe could not play at next year’s World Cup after he marked his international comeback with a goal.
Sunderland striker Defoe, 34, scored the opener as England toiled to a 2-0 qualifying win over Lithuania on Sunday, following close to three and a half years in the international wilderness.
He has scored 14 goals for Sunderland in the Premier League this season, but he also owed his international recall to the absences through injury of Harry Kane and Daniel Sturridge.
“I think we’ve got to look every time we get together as to who is in form,” Southgate told reporters at Wembley.
“I don’t know if we can have a distinct pecking order because players who are playing well deserve the opportunity. If we are going to be successful, we have to have that competition for places.
“The reality is we will always lose players to injury. We’re never able to pick a full cohort, so it’s important we can call upon the likes of Jermain and he can have the impact he does like he did today.
“If he scores like he is in the Premier League, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t be (picked for the World Cup).”
Defoe’s 20th international goal arrived in the 22nd minute as he directed a side-foot shot past Ernestas Setkus following a burst down the left by Raheem Sterling.
Substitute Jamie Vardy notched the hosts’ second in the 66th minute, finishing coolly after being set up by Adam Lallana’s exquisite flicked pass.
Sterling and Lallana were given freedom to roam alongside Dele Alli in England’s 4-2-3-1 system and Southgate hailed their contributions.
“He’s a player we really like,” Southgate said of Manchester City winger Sterling.
“We don’t have a lot of players in the country who can beat people in one-versus-one situations and he’s explosive in those types of areas.
“He’s improving all the time and has the hunger and desire to improve. He’s a ballsy player and I like that about him as well.”
– ‘Quick feet, quick brain’ –
On Lallana, he added: “Adam injects something. He created a really good opening just before the first goal. The game in tight areas is where his quick feet and quick brain stand out.
“There weren’t so many opportunities for us to turn the ball over high up the pitch, but he starts that press off. I’m really impressed with his mentality and quality.”
Having successfully trialled a 3-4-2-1 formation in last week’s 1-0 friendly loss to Germany, Southgate opted for a 4-2-3-1 shape against Lithuania.
“The good thing now is every coach who plays against us has got to prepare for two systems,” he said. “They’re going to have to work a bit harder, which is great.”
Victory left England four points clear at the top of UEFA qualifying Group F, but ahead of June’s trip to old foes Scotland, Southgate sounded a note of caution.
“The group is in our hands, which is the most important thing,” he said.
“But we know what Scotland will be like and we have to play on a plastic pitch in Lithuania. We have to keep improving with every performance.”
Defeat saw Lithuania’s hopes of qualifying for a first major tournament recede further, but manager Edgaras Jankauskas said his side would draw encouragement from their battling display.
“We know how much work we have to do to improve,” said Jankauskas.
“But we have qualities that can guide that improvement — dedication, application, which are qualities we showed today. I think everyone can see that.”