England 5-3 Kosovo: Raheem Sterling leads England to action-packed victory
Sterling was in masterful form (Photo: Getty Images)

England recovered after conceding within seconds of kick-off to defeat Kosovo and maintain their 100% record in Group A during a thrilling evening of football at St Mary's Stadium.

Despite an initially brave attacking outset from the visitors, an England side heavily influenced by Raheem Sterling flew into a 5-1 lead at the break.

Yet Kosovo hit back with two quick strikes before England missed a penalty and struck the post during an action-packed 90 minutes on the South Coast.

Electric opening

3-0, 4-0, another comfortable win was predicted for England, despite Kosovo's strong start to the qualification campaign.

But it was the visitors who struck first, as early as the first minute. After a laboured ball by Ross Barkley, Michael Keane misplaced his pass straight to Vedat Muriqi who threaded through Valon Berisha, comfortably clipping his effort past Jordan Pickford with just 35 seconds on the clock.

Yet it took just seven minutes for England to draw level with Keane having a major influence at the other end. Barkley's corner was floated to the Everton defender who nodded back across goal for Raheem Sterling to glance home his sixth goal of the qualification campaign, his first header for England.

Sterling influence

Kosovo continued to offer a threat going forward, not afraid to pile numbers into attack. But England were growing in confidence, showcasing more desire and purpose on the ball.

There was an ominous feel to the moment Sterling spun on the ball in the centre circle before darting towards the Kosovo penalty area. The Manchester City star laid the ball to Harry Kane and England's captain fired his way to number 13 on his nation's all-time top goalscorer list.

Kosovo had threatened to attack from the noises coming out of their pre-match press conferences. But the side boasting Manchester City goalkeeper Arijanet Muric, Huddersfield's Florent Hadergjonaj, Swansea's Bersant Celina and Lazio's Berisha arguably played into England's hands by leaving gaps in midfield.

Despite the vocal away support, it was a risky strategy with Sterling in particular enjoying picking up the ball on the half turn and driving at the Kosovo back four - Sterling averaged a dribble every six minutes in the first 30 - only a lack of quality with the final ball as a collective prevented England from scoring more during that period.

Sancho show

A third England goal was coming but it materialised in controversial circumstances. Fidan Aliti went down under a strong challenge from Trent Alexander-Arnold but England continued to play when a free-kick was not awarded.

With Aliti down on the ground, Kosovo called for the ball to be played out but Jadon Sancho continued forward, cutting a pass across the penalty area. A lack of communication and concentration resulted in Mergim Vojvoda tapping into his goal with no pressure behind him after Sterling had pulled away. Only seconds earlier, Vojvoda had unleashed a swerving effort just wide of Pickford's goal.

Still the Kosovo side failed to shut up shop and left huge gaps in the middle third of the pitch. Sterling was licking his lips.

The attacking midfielder received the ball again just left of centre before driving into a dangerous position. The number seven lifted his head before releasing Sancho to slot home a fourth.

And Sterling was not done there with the visitors pleading for the half-time whistle. A clipped ball down the left was delicately touched round the corner by Sterling before bursting away from the Kosovo defence. One-on-one with the goalkeeper, Sterling again opened his peripheral vision, laying a second on a plate in as many minutes for Sancho.

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Kosovo hit back

The space between Kosovo's midfield and defence continued to be exploited as early as the second minute after the break - Kane picking out the run of Trent Alexander-Arnold whose left-footed strike was parried away by Muric.

But, in almost a carbon copy of the first half, Kosovo netted an early goal after another lapse at the back from the hosts. This time it was Declan Rice who gave the ball away, for the first time in the match incidentally, and, as he did in the opening minutes, Muriqi picked out Berisha, albeit from a longer distance, to slot home a second for the attacking away side.

And England were to concede a third moments later after more sloppy defending. This time, Harry Maguire couldn't sort out his feet before Muriqi touched the ball away and was hacked down by the defender. The Fenerbahce striker picked himself up to power the penalty past Pickford's outstretched hand. 

It was a brave response and even Muric, after conceding five goals in the opening 45 minutes, had a moment to remember, saving a Kane penalty after Amir Brahmani bundled over Barkley following a driving run. However, replays showed that Muric was a yard off his line in the absence of VAR.

Sterling strikes the post

With 20 minutes left to play, there was still more goalmouth action to come. Sterling had a strike deflected by the shin of Muric onto the woodwork before England's main man saw another deflected effort drift agonisingly wide of the near post.

It took until the 83rd minute for Gareth Southgate to make his first change, opting to deploy the energetic Mason Mount in place of Barkley as England looked to soak up pressure and spring on the counter-attack. Marcus Rashford was soon to follow as he replaced Sancho, forcing a save from Muric within a minute of coming on.

Yet there was still danger at the other end - Celina's neat footwork creating space before curling an effort just wide.

England eventually found themselves playing for the final whistle, somewhat relieved to record a 5-3 victory as they kept the ball in the corner during the final seconds.

Key takeaways

Raheem Sterling is pure box office

Albeit against Kosovo rather than a European powerhouse, this performance again underlines the talent of Sterling. Two years ago, he would have picked the wrong options but his irresistible confidence and work ethic have moulded Sterling into one of the best players on the continent, a goal and assist machine for both club and country.

Familiar problems in defence

Whilst England's front three is one of the most exciting on the planet, their defence remains a major issue. Conceding three against Kosovo is inexplicable but the errors in judgement for experienced internationals were unforgivable.