England's Harry Kane celebrates scoring their second goal with Bukayo Saka and Phil Foden REUTERS/Carl Recine
(Reuters) - England moved closer to a top seeding at Euro 2024 with a laboured 2-0 home victory against Group C makeweights Malta on Friday that will not live long in the memory of an underwhelmed Wembley Stadium crowd.
Until the 75th minute all that separated Gareth Southgate's lacklustre side from 171st-ranked Malta was an early own goal by Enrico Pepe and they endured some anxious moments in between.
Captain Harry Kane doubled England's lead with his 62nd goal for his country after good work by Bukayo Saka before Declan Rice had an effort ruled out for offside.
But there was precious little to get enthused about as several England fringe players failed to shine in Southgate's 90th match in charge.
England had already qualified for the Germany showpiece and victory over Malta ensured they top Group C, regardless of what happens in their match away to North Macedonia on Monday.
They have 19 points from seven games, with Italy and Ukraine on 13. A point in North Macedonia should ensure England are amongst the top six seeds for Euro 2024.
"It was a game when we didn't start well and if you don't start well it's hard to pick the game up," Southgate said.
"These players have played so many games and have done so well for us so I am not going to hammer them for it. We weren't where we should be but we got the win.
"The number of games these players are playing, it's almost a self-regulation, sub-consciously you do just enough to win."
Southgate, whose first game in charge in 2016 was against Malta, will say the hard work had already been done with impressive home and away wins over European champions Italy.
He will also point to midfielder Jude Bellingham not being available because of injury.
But there is no getting away from the fact his players should have found it much easier to overcome a gutsy Malta side who had no points and only two goals in the group.
With several first-choice players on the bench, England were tepid in a first half in which Malta had more goal attempts, looked more energetic and were unfortunate to be behind.
Right from the start the hosts were sloppy and a loose pass by Conor Gallagher gave Malta's Teddy Teuma a chance in the opening minute which he fired wide.
England went ahead in the eighth minute thanks to a slice of fortune as Phil Foden's cut back cannoned off the covering Pepe and into the net despite a valiant effort by Malta keeper Henry Bonello to keep it out.
Harry Maguire's awful pass soon afterwards offered Malta another chance but Paul Mbong blazed his shot over.
Kane was then booked for diving despite contact from Bonello after nudging the ball past the keeper -- referee Luis Godinho deciding Kane had deliberately trailed his leg to buy a penalty.
Bonello was not troubled again by a pedestrian England before halftime as the home crowd entertained themselves by flying paper aeroplanes onto the Wembley turf.
Gallagher and Fikayo Tomori were replaced at halftime with Saka and Kyle Walker coming on but things hardly improved and Marcus Rashford's collision with team mate Trent Alexander-Arnold summed up a disjointed display.
The biggest cheer of the game greeted the arrival of Chelsea youngster Cole Palmer off the bench for his first cap, replacing Rashford, with Rice coming on for ineffective Jordan Henderson.
Kane ensured the victory with a simple finish after a rare flowing move but it was flat performance and England will find out a lot more about themselves in friendlies against Belgium and Brazil next year in the build-up to the finals.