England put on a show for the Southampton crowd with a thrilling five-star first half against a Kosovo side who refused to lie down on a breathless night at St Mary’s.
The visitors came into the game boasting the longest unbeaten record in Europe, spanning 15 games, and backed up those credentials by scoring early in each half through Valon Berisha.
In between times, however, England were rampant. Playing at Saints’ home for the first time in 17 years, the Three Lions were unstoppable, as they poured forward at will and looked like scoring with every attack.
Raheem Sterling scored one and set up three more, including one for Harry Kane who later missed a penalty, while Jadon Sancho scored his first two international goals after forcing an own goal for England’s third.
Vedat Muriqi’s spot-kick ten minutes into the second period to make it 5-3 had Kosovo dreaming of the comeback of all comebacks, particularly when Kane was denied by goalkeeper Arijanet Muric soon after.
It was not perfect from England, who somehow contrived to lose the second half 2-0, but what brilliant entertainment for a St Mary’s crowd who will remember this night for generations.
Gareth Southgate made three changes from his starters who ran out 4-0 winners over Bulgaria at Wembley, though hat-trick hero Kane continued to lead the line as captain.
Full-backs Trent Alexander-Arnold and Ben Chilwell replaced Kieran Trippier and Danny Rose, while Sancho came in for Marcus Rashford in attack.
With so much pre-match excitement in the air ahead of England’s first competitive game on the road since 2006, Kosovo were determined to play the role of party poopers, backed by a vociferous contingent of travelling fans.
Manager Bernard Challandes had vowed to press England from the front, and his players carried out those instructions to a tee to stun St Mary’s inside 35 seconds.
Michael Keane’s stray pass was picked off by Muriqi, who slipped the ball through for Berisha to score with an accomplished finish past Jordan Pickford.
The Kosovans could not believe their luck, but England – and Keane in particular – did not need long to strike back.
The big defender was quick to make amends with a towering header back across goal from a right-wing corner, leaving Sterling with a simple task to nod home from just a couple of yards out.
Soon enough it was England causing problems with their pressing. Kosovan keeper Arijanet Muric was flustered by Sancho, clearing the danger just before the ball dribbled over the line for an own goal.
In Sterling and Kane, England have a goal threat to rival anyone in Europe, and the two combined to deadly effect to complete the turnaround after 19 minutes.
Sterling’s low centre of gravity and speed off the mark was all too much as he turned away from his man on the halfway line and sprinted towards the penalty area, sliding the ball to his left for Kane, who shifted the ball on to his left foot and drove it low and hard between the legs of Muric.
Kosovo were being outplayed at this point. Vojvoda responded with a driven shot into the sidenetting as Pickford scrambled across his goal, but the right-back was about to endure a haunting moment at the other end.
With the visitors feeling a sense of injustice at having a man down in the build-up, nobody was stopping England, as Sancho’s dancing feet preceded a driven cross that struck the unfortunate defender and rolled apologetically into the net.
The score remained 3-1 with just a minute of normal time remaining in the half, but by the time the German referee put whistle to mouth, England had two more.
Sancho, after seven caps without a goal, scored both of them – both set up by the irrepressible Sterling.
Darting down the left, the Manchester City man had the vision to spot Sancho on the far side of the box and the ability to find him, before the winger from the opposite flank steadied himself to bury a low shot past poor Muric.
The fifth goal arrived courtesy of a similar move. More brilliance from Sterling, who wowed the crowd by nicking the ball past his man and flying past him all in one movement.
Again he had the composure to make the right decision at the end of it, laying the ball square for Sancho to tap in England’s fifth, crowning a first-half exhibition in counter-attacking football.
To their credit, Kosovo started the second half in the same manner as the first, by scoring an early goal.
Once again Muriqi was the architect, as his lofted pass picked out Berisha, who was again the finisher, ducking inside Jordan Henderson and keeping his cool with another clinical finish.
The winger was hat-trick hunting when Muriqi went down under Harry Maguire’s challenge in the box, but it was the man fouled who picked up the ball and duly beat Pickford – albeit only just – as Southgate’s electrifying team showed signs of fallibility.
Back came England. Ross Barkley’s close footwork tiptoed the midfielder into the area, where he was clipped for another penalty.
Surely a sixth was a formality with Kane’s record from the spot, but the striker was subject to an almighty delay as the referee fussed over encroachment, booking one Kosovan offender, before Muric guessed right to thwart the England skipper.
He could have been forgiven for going alone with 20 minutes left, chasing the goal that had just eluded him, but was unselfish enough to present Sterling with the chance of a hat-trick, only for Muric to get just enough on the shot to turn the ball on to the post.
Sterling lifted another hat-trick chance over the bar after Muric denied substitute Rashford, only to be flagged offside, before Swansea’s Bersant Celina whistled a shot just wide to remind the hosts the job still was not done.
When the final whistle sounded, every supporter inside a raucous St Mary’s stood to acclaim an exhilarating spectacle, as England took their tally to four wins from four and 19 goals scored in Euro 2020 qualifying.
England: Pickford; Alexander-Arnold, Keane, Maguire, Chilwell; Henderson, Rice, Barkley (Mount 84); Sancho (Rashford 85), Kane, Sterling.
Subs not used: Heaton, Pope, Gomez, Mings, Trippier, Rose, Winks, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Maddison, Wilson.
Goals: Sterling 8, Kane 19, Vojvoda o.g. 38, Sancho 44, 45.
Kosovo: Muric; Vojvoda, Rrahmani, Aliti, Hadergjonaj; Voca (Rashkaj 59), Halimi; Muslija (Paqarada 46), Celina, V. Berisha (Hasani 85), Muriqi.
Subs not used: Ujkani, Bekaj, Dresevic, Rashani, Kryeziu, Nuhiu, Zhegrova, B. Berisha.
Goals: V. Berisha 1, 49, Muriqi 55 (pen).