TRNAVA, Slovakia, Sept 4, (Agencies): Adam Lallana scored with the last kick of the match as England edged 10-man Slovakia 1-0 in Sam Allardyce’s first game as manager in World Cup qualifying on Sunday.
Despite Slovakia having Martin Skrtel sent off in the 57th minute, Allardyce looked destined to become the first England manager since Bobby Robson in 1982 not to win his first game in charge.
But in the fifth minute of stoppage time at Trnava’s City Arena, Lallana squeezed a shot between Slovakia goalkeeper Matus Kozacik’s legs to get England up and running in Group F.
Allardyce, nicknamed ‘Big Sam’, succeeded Roy Hodgson after England’s humiliating Euro 2016 elimination by Iceland.
Kozacik’s gaffe enabled him to become the ninth England manager to start his tenure with a win.
Lallana’s goal spared England from a repeat of the result from their group-stage encounter with Slovakia at Euro 2016.
It also meant that captain Wayne Rooney finished as a winner on a night when he won his 116th cap to become England’s most-capped outfield player.
Allardyce had vowed that Rooney would no longer play as a number 10 on his watch, but the captain nonetheless lined up in midfield beside Jordan Henderson in a 4-1-4-1 system.
With Raheem Sterling hugging the touchline on the right and Lallana flitting infield from the left, it left lone striker Harry Kane isolated. It took England until mid-way through the first half to present Kane with anything approaching a shooting chance and when Kyle Walker picked him out at the near post, the number nine missed his kick. Slovakia gave England a scare when Michal Duris robbed Danny Rose and flashed the ball across the six-yard box that narrowly eluded Dusan Svento.
The first half ended with Sterling flashing a shot wide, but England were toiling.
Allardyce shuffled his pack at half-time, switching Sterling and Lallana and pushing Rooney upfield, but it took the dismissal of Skrtel for the visitors to take the upper hand.
Booked in the first half for catching Kane with a flailing arm, the former Liverpool centre-back saw red after crudely stamping on the same opponent’s calf as he knelt on the pitch.
Rooney registered England’s first shot on target in the 65th minute, a weak curler that Kozacik pushed away uncertainly, before Sterling almost caught the Slovakia goalkeeper out with an improvised chip.
Allardyce sent on Dele Alli and Theo Walcott for Henderson and Sterling, while Daniel Sturridge replaced Kane late on.
But the visitors came no closer than a left-foot snapshot from Lallana that hit the left-hand post and bounced across goal.
The Liverpool midfielder continued to look like England’s best chance of a goal, with one shot parried by Kozacik and another fizzing wide.
Walcott found the net in the 90th minute, tucking the ball away after Sturridge’s shot was blocked, only for his celebrations to be cut short by an offside flag.
But just as it looked as if victory would elude England, Lallana gathered Rose’s cross and unleashed a hopeful shot that crept between Kozacik’s legs and dribbed into the net.
England has the early edge in Group F after Slovenia fought back from two goals down to draw 2-2 with Lithuania.
Meanwhile, Christian Eriksen scored a first-half goal but missed a second-half penalty as wasteful Denmark began their World Cup qualifying campaign with 1-0 win over Armenia in European Group E on Sunday.
With the visitors missing captain and record goal-scorer Henrikh Mkhitaryan due to a thigh injury, Eriksen rifled home Viktor Fischer’s backheeled pass in the 17th minute of coach Age Hareide’s first competitive international in charge.
In driving rain, Fischer saw his powerful first-half shot from distance come cannoning back off the crossbar and Eriksen had a second-half penalty saved by Armenia goalkeeper Arsen Beglaryan as the Danes struggled to convert their dominance into goals.
Armenia, who have never qualified for the World Cup as an independent nation, managed just one shot on target and Denmark, who themselves missed out on Brazil on 2014, held out comfortably.
Former Norway coach Hareide was appointed last December to replace Morten Olsen after Denmark failed to qualify for Euro 2016.
In Group E other match, Kazakhstan and Poland drew 2-2. Meanwhile in Group C, Azerbaijan edged San Marino 1-0.
Despite several potential players remaining in “limbo”, Kosovo will make history on Monday, playing their first ever competitive match in a World Cup qualifier against Finland.
Kosovo became the 210th member of FIFA in May, but excitement ahead of the Balkans outfit’s historic match has been marred by questions over who will be allowed to play for the team.
According to FIFA’s rules, someone who has played for another national team cannot normally switch allegiance, so a number of Kosovo’s potential players have had to apply individually for special permission — which is still awaited.
“It is unprecedented as they played for other national teams while Kosovo was not a member of FIFA … Now they should be given this opportunity like everyone else,” the head of Kosovo’s football association Fadil Vokrri told AFP.
“FIFA should allow a one-off exemption for Kosovo.”
A FIFA spokesman said the various applications “are currently pending and being investigated” but he could not give an estimation of how long the decision process would take.
Kosovo unilaterally declared independence from Belgrade in 2008 and remains unrecognised by several countries, including Serbia and Russia.
Serbia vehemently opposed Kosovo’s admittance to world governing body FIFA, which came soon after Europe’s governing body UEFA narrowly approved their membership.
“It is a dream coming true,” midfielder Alban Muja wrote on his Facebook page. He intends to play for Kosovo after switching from the Albania.
A total of 24 players with roots in Kosovo currently play for six other national teams.
Most of them play for Albania, who are mourning the decision of four players so far from their European Championships squad earlier this summer to play for Kosovo.
Others include Belgium’s Adnan Januzaj, Finland’s Perparim Hetemaj and Sweden’s Arber Zeneli, who all await the green light from FIFA.
Amid the uncertainty ahead of the game at Finland’s Turku Stadium, coach Albert Bunjaki has had to operate with two lists of footballers — 15 who can definitely play and 11 awaiting permission.
He decided to assemble the first meeting of the team on September 1 in Turku for intensive training ahead of the match.
Despite the complications, Bunjaki remained upbeat.
“This is just the beginning of the project of creating a good team for the next European Championships,” he said.
Choosing to switch teams was an agonising decision according to Norway’s Valon Berisha, who has applied to play for Kosovo.
“I was born in Norway and everything I achieved was thanks to Norway. I was in limbo for three to four weeks not knowing what to do.”
In the end, he decided to play for Kosovo while his brother Veton will stick with Norway, he said.
Along with Finland, Kosovo will face Croatia, Turkey, Iceland and Ukraine in their debut in World Cup qualifying.
As they don’t yet have a stadium that meets international standards, Kosovo will play the opening home qualifier against Croatia on October 6 in the Albanian city of Shkodra.
Kosovo’s officials are hoping the stadium in the capital Pristina will be ready for World Cup qualifiers by June next year.
Bajram Jashanica, a defender for Albanians Skenderbeu Korce, has already made his debut for Kosovo in a friendly against Turkey, and said the long wait for Monday’s match was motivating the team.
“Emotions are running high around us. We have to overcome them in order to achieve a good result. We are ready and we can make it,” he told AFP.