An otherwise painless Friday evening for England manager Roy Hodgson was sullied by one questionable moment of over-zealous referring, as Danny Welbeck was ruled out for Tuesday’s trip to Ukraine after picking up a yellow card in a dominant 4-0 win over Moldova.
The Manchester United striker scored two beautiful goals to help his side to all three points—the overriding requirement of the day—but not before he had been ludicrously booked moments before half-time, having taken a shot at goal a split-second after having been whistled for offside.
Hodgson, able to sit comfortably in his seat for much of the contest, was clearly riled by the decision, which leaves him fervently hoping Daniel Sturridge will prove his fitness in time to give him at least another option for the trip to Kiev.
"It does take the gloss off what I thought was a very good win," Hodgson complained to ITV. "I did not think it was a yellow card.
"We’re already short of front players, so to lose one in such unfortunate circumstances ... [is tough]."
At least the continuing international form of Rickie Lambert might give Hodgson some comfort. The Southampton striker added the second goal of the night after Steven Gerrard’s great opener, while also providing assists for both Welbeck’s efforts in an impressive all-round performance.
Not that Moldova offered much threat. The visitors defended deep for almost the entire contest, allowing Hodgson to preserve Lambert with 20 minutes remaining while also giving an international debut to 19-year-old Everton midfielder Ross Barkley.
As far as the game was concerned, England dealt with their underdog opponents with a clinical edge that they have not always been known for.
It was a fine team move that opened the scoring after 12 minutes. Good interplay between Welbeck and Ashley Cole unleashed the former down the left. He cut the ball back for Lampard, who weighted a ball perfectly into the path of Gerrard.
The skipper made no mistake, feathering a sumptuous low drive that crept inside the near post.
From that moment England were utterly in control, and their advantage was doubled just over ten minutes later after some questionable goalkeeping from Moldova’s Stanislav Namasco.
After some sustained pressure from England, Theo Walcott tested Namasco with a dipping drive that he was only able to parry right into the path of Lambert, who stooped at the far post to nod into the unguarded net.
Shortly after came the moment that will cause England most concern.
Played through by Wilshere down the left, Welbeck opened his body and fired a shot narrowly over the crossbar. But referee Ivan Kruzliak had whistled for offside just moments earlier and, judging Welbeck’s actions to be either time-wasting or petulant (or both), booked him for his conduct.
Already shorn of Wayne Rooney and possibly Sturridge for the all-important Ukraine meeting, losing Welbeck is an additional headache.
The United man scored moments later—touching on Lambert’s clipped ball to take it past Namasco, before sliding into the unguarded net—but did not celebrate, clearly irked by Kruzliak’s decision.
"I was obviously very disappointed," Welbeck told ITV afterwards. "In a stadium full of thousands of fans, you can’t always hear the referee’s whistle."
As half-time came, Hodgson attempted to make his feelings known to the relevant parties.
Welbeck’s fate seemed to focus minds on the need for self-preservation in the second half. He scored his second, again thanks in part to Lambert, with a lovely clipped finish, before the Saints striker was withdrawn for James Milner—preserved for a bigger fight still to come.
Prior to that Jack Wilshere was also removed, allowing Barkley to get his first taste of international football.
The Everton midfielder had one shining moment.
He beat his man before unleashing a powerful drive that was narrowly wide, but the closing stages of the game seemed devoted to seeing if Welbeck could at least complete his hat-trick.
The final whistle allowed attention to turn to the bigger test now around the corner. A draw elsewhere beaten group rivals Montenegro and Poland has helped England's cause, but Hodgson will be hoping that Welbeck’s absence does not come to prove significant in the next encounter—one that could define England's World Cup ambitions.
"It’s overshadowed it, that’s for sure," Hodgson added, still fixated on the Welbeck decision. "He’s been unbelievably unfortunate and so have we.
"Not many sides can survive the loss of two quality centre-forwards like we have, and now it’s three."
Rickie Lambert: B+
The Southampton man's international career goes from strength-to-strength. After his dream debut, Lambert was effective linking play on Friday and, when his chance came, scored another goal too. He could show a slightly better understanding of his team-mates at times, but that is only a minor complaint. Now, he will have the chance to prove he can be the main man in England's biggest game for a long time.
"Obviously I'm over the moon again," Lambert told ITV. "Scoring for England is the best feeling in the world.
"It’s a shame Danny has got the yellow card, but I’m hoping I’ve given a different option. That’s all I can try to do."
Stanislav Namasco: D
If Moldova had been able to call upon Joe Hart in goal—even the current, error-prone version of Joe Hart—it may have been an altogether more fraught night for England.
As it was, Namasco consistently put his defence under pressure with some uncertain handling and poor positioning. While he did make a number of saves, the game may have only been 1-0 or 2-0 if Namasco had been of a standard we are more used to seeing.
Steven Gerrard: A
Hardly the skipper's toughest game in an England shirt, but he was utterly imperious—at the heart of almost everything, England did well. Some may question why Michael Carrick cannot get into this side, but Gerrard's performance reminded everyone that he is certainly not the player who should be dropped for the Manchester United man.
England now travel to Kiev for the meeting on Tuesday, which could define World Cup qualification. Defeat would drop the Three Lions two points behind their vanquishers with just two games remaining.
Victory would effectively guarantee them at least a play-off berth.
Moldova, meanwhile, have over a month to wait before their next match—at home to minnows San Marino in Chisinau.