England brushed off their Euro 2020 final heartbreak with a convincing World Cup qualification victory in Hungary as Raheem Sterling shone with a goal and an assist.
Just 53 days after the pain of losing on penalties to Italy at Wembley, the Three Lions were back in action as their quest to qualify for the 2022 World Cup continued with a comfortable 4-0 victory in Budapest, where racist chanting was reportedly heard during the second half.
Sterling turned in the opener after the break before setting up Harry Kane, with Harry Maguire heading in soon after and Declan Rice scoring from distance to wrap up the win and maintain England’s perfect start to Group I.
Hungary had held both France and Germany to draws at the Puskas Arena during the European Championships and this always looked like England’s toughest test of qualification.
But they are now unbeaten in 14 games against Hungary and have not lost a World Cup qualifier since 2009.
This ground will be empty for the next two UEFA-organised matches following sanctions after racist and homophobic abuse marred Hungary’s Euro 2020 fixtures, with the third match of a stadium ban suspended.
With no away fans in attendance, the jeers that met England’s players taking the knee before kick-off in the now-familiar stance against racism and discrimination were deafening.
There was a report of monkey chants during the second half, with cups thrown at Sterling following the opening goal and a flare tossed on after Maguire’s effort, surely meaning further sanctions await.
England boss Gareth Southgate refused to be drawn into criticising the Hungarian supporters ahead of the game after three of his own players – Jadon Sancho, Marcus Rashford and Bukayo Saka – were targets of online racist abuse following their penalty misses in the shoot-out against Italy.
He named 10 of the players who started the final in his team here, with Manchester City’s £100million man Jack Grealish replacing Kieran Trippier as England reverted to a four-man defence.
Following the heights of the summer, England are now back at “base camp” according to Southgate as they aim to qualify for the World Cup in Qatar, but the ascent started smoothly enough.
A brilliant opening goal from the #ThreeLions.
— England (@England) September 2, 2021
They dominated possession in a first half bereft of clear-cut chances, Mason Mount shooting high and wide, Maguire heading over a corner and captain Kane missing the target from the edge of the box.
Kane finally drew a save out of Peter Gulacsi but should have done better when he went through one-on-one with the Hungary goalkeeper early in the second half.
England took the lead shortly afterwards, Rice winning back possession and finding Grealish, whose ball to Mount was crossed in for Sterling to turn home.
The forward peeled off his shirt to unveil a message which read ‘Love you forever Steffie Gregg’ – a friend of Sterling’s who died earlier this year.
He was pelted with drinks as his team-mates joined him in celebration by the corner flag, but it did not deter the Manchester City man.
Just eight minutes later and he was teeing up Kane to double the lead, crossing to the near post for the skipper to score with a diving
England were suddenly looking much sharper and Kane was again denied by Gulacsi as he looked to kill off the game.
The third came from the resulting Luke Shaw corner, Maguire’s header squirming in under Gulacsi, with a flare thrown on to the pitch close to where the England players celebrated.
Play resumed after a brief interlude, with Sterling flagged offside having burst in behind and Kane again kept out by Gulacsi, the former Liverpool keeper becoming increasingly busy as the game wore on.
He was beaten too easily again as Rice’s shot from distance added a fourth for the visitors in the closing stages as reports of racist abuse began to surface from broadcasters dotted around the stadium.