ENGLAND BUNDLE OVER THE LINE
Harry Kane scored an injury-time winner to send England to next year’s World Cup in Russia. This rather distasteful performance was often painful watching, but The Three Lions have learned the skill of persistence in this qualifying group – an important commodity to have as tournament football nears.
Man of the match in the away tie against Slovenia, Joe Hart was again picked over Jack Butland and others to start in goal for England. Twelve England injuries meant the eleven almost “picked itself” according to manager Gareth Southgate, and this led to starts for John Stones, Jordan Henderson, Raheem Sterling and captain Harry Kane. Dele Alli served his suspension. Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak, of Atlético Madrid, is considered one of the best in the world.
The Three Lions started promisingly, but it was Slovenia, with a counter-attack, that caused the first focal point. A Roman Bezjak disguised pass saw livewire Josip Iličić one-on-one with Joe Hart. The winger seemed to be taken down by the West Ham United keeper, but the referee awarded the one thing it certainly wasn’t – a corner. Slovenia continued to threaten, and it was only after another chance – scuffed wide by Bezjak – that England finally took control a little. Flashing drives from Harry Kane and Jordan Henderson needed close attention from Oblak.
Marcus Rashford caught the keeper out by shooting a free-kick that everyone else expected would be crossed in. Oblak, again, pushed the ball away well, and a disappointing half of football ended. It was goalless.
From a Slovenia corner early on, Gareth Southgate’s team were suddenly on the attack. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s hoofed clearance was taken down well upfield by Sterling, who ran at the defence at speed. His pass sideways to Marcus Rashford left Slovenia’s defence horribly exposed, and Jan Oblak had no choice but to close the Manchester United teenager down himself. Rashford lobbed the goalkeeper, but it was clear as it left his boot that the lob was too feeble, and Rajko Rotman was able to clear the ball from the line. Manchester United fringe player Jesse Lingard came on in a desperate attempt to find some attacking urgency, and immediately his inch-perfect penetrative ball forward to Ryan Bertrand left the Southampton full-back in acres of room on the left. Bertrand’s cross was to meet Kane – but a defensive back-heel from captain Boštjan Cesar – who has conceded two penalties to England in past games – saved Slovenia. The centre-back came to his country’s rescue again not three seconds later, as also blocked Sterling’s follow-up effort. England were getting closer.
Another Raheem Sterling blocked effort led to Harry Kane firing wide: unusually wide for a man with more goals in September than any other play in Europe. Was October haunted? October looked very haunted for England as Iličić’s long-range ball went all the way through to substitute striker Tim Matavž. Out came Joe Hart to block the ball well. Hart then completed a fine piece of goalkeeping as he blocked a point-blank rebound, before a free-kick was given in his favour.
Slovenia needed to win here to have any real chance of progression – especially as news came in that Scotland had scored a last-minute winner in Slovakia. This boldness showed as Oblak tried to catch England off-guard with a quick throw out, following an England corner. Right-back Kyle Walker nicked the ball, and set England off on what could be described as a counter-counter. The Manchester City summer signing whipped in a mean ball to the onrushing Harry Kane. The captain reached ahead of his marker to stud home the most precious of goals. England’s eleven men flew to the corner flag to celebrate a qualification-securing goal. Slovenia had worked so hard, but England had found the net in stoppage-time in Group F for the fifth time. Gareth Southgate’s side could celebrate a ninety-forth minute winner that had sent them to the FIFA World Cup.
Questions will be asked about England’s performance, but that can be sorted out in the weeks and months ahead. Scotland held on to beat Slovakia, and now face the prospect of securing a previously unlikely play-off place. Back in London though, it ended, England 1-0 Slovenia.