England women rout Russia to open World Cup qualifying
England's Lionesses delivered a public endorsement to under-pressure manager Mark Sampson in a 6-0 win over Russia at Prenton Park.
Goals from Nikita Parris, local favourite Jodie Taylor, Jordan Nobbs, Lucy Bronze and Toni Duggan, who struck twice, meant that for 90 minutes at least, Sampson could savour every moment of his job.
And there would have been no point sweeter for the 34-year-old Welshman than when the entire starting XI made a beeline for the bench to celebrate alongside him the 11th-minute opener from Parris.
This opening World Cup qualifying match for England, their first step on the road to France 2019, was played against the backdrop of Sampson facing allegations of racism, harassment and bullying.
He has been twice cleared, by an internal Football Association review and then an independent investigation, and firmly denies all wrongdoing. But the issue is lingering and might do for some months to come as pressure mounts on the FA to launch a new investigation.
Flag-waving young children, presumably largely oblivious to the controversy surrounding England's manager, greeted the teams from the tunnel at kick-off, and it was a match they could enjoy from start to finish.
Once England hit their stride, it was a stroll at Tranmere's home ground against a team who were reduced to 10 players after falling 2-0 behind.
Russia took a mauling on the Wirral, with Fran Kirby teeing up Parris to strike home a low shot for the 11th-minute opener. Even goalkeeper Siobhan Chamberlain sprinted towards Sampson to celebrate, answering any question about unity in the camp.
It was Kirby again who was the provider moments later for Euro 2017 Golden Boot winner Taylor, back at Tranmere where she began her career and again on target.
Taylor found room behind a static Russia defence to slot home a crowd-pleasing low finish past Tatyana Shcherbak.
Kirby then earned, but missed, a penalty. The Chelsea striker's thumping shot was blocked by the arms of Ksenia Tsybutovich, who was sent off for a second bookable offence.
But Kirby's attempt from the spot was hit with not nearly the same venom as her earlier effort and was saved with her feet by Shcherbak.
England sit third in the FIFA rankings and were a class apart, proven when Nobbs lashed in another goal in the 36th minute. Kirby darted in from the left and teed up her third goal of the evening by unselfishly laying the ball off for the England vice-captain to drill in from 10 yards.
Bronze smashed home a stunning shot into the top right corner from 20 yards shortly before the break, and Duggan struck from similar range for the fifth early in the second half.
The crowd of 7,047 might have expected several more to follow, but England had to wait until the 84th minute for a sixth, with Barcelona forward Duggan volleying in after an awful Russian attempted clearance.
It might have been 7-0 as stoppage-time approached but substitute Ellen White fired into the side-netting, a satisfied Sampson applauding all the same.