Albania 0-2 England
- Harry Kane and Mason Mount scored the goals as England earned a comfortable win over Albania in Tirana.
- They head into Wednesday night’s Wembley tie with Poland having so far claimed six points from six in World Cup qualifying.
England were last in Tirana 20 years ago this very day. Andy Cole finally scored a senior international goal that night, at the 13th time of asking. While Harry Kane’s latest England goal drought was nothing like that agonising, six internationals without a goal is still too many for your liking when you’re one of the world’s best strikers. He put an end to that run which dated back to November 2019 by scoring the first of two England managed against Albania.
Luke Shaw’s resurgence for Manchester United this season has been like watching a completely different player to the either injured or inconsistent full-back of recent years. His first-time cross was the moment of quality that England needed to break down their opponents’ stubborn and well-organised 3-4-3 system. England, by contrast, were back to 4-3-3. Is Gareth Southgate returning to it for good? Will we see it against defensive sides only? Was this simply an experiment? Only he and his assistant manager Steve Holland will know. Whenever asked about his side’s formation, well, he doesn’t answer the question.Embed from Getty Images
When you have a striker as accomplished as Kane, formations start to become an afterthought. The Three Lions’ skipper got in front of his man and directed a downward header into the far corner. The 40th minute was coming; England had taken a while to gather momentum but now had the lead. That first goal is always the hardest. Predictably, England’s hosts actually came out and played now, in search of the equaliser they needed if they were to get anything from this.
England did have a few hairy moments. Myrto Uzuni’s missed opportunity when countering from an England corner was one. In for the injured Jordan Pickford, Nick Pope was never tested with a meaningful shot on target, but he found it enough of a task to even keep his clearances within the perimeter of the pitch. Pickford’s smaller frame has always been his caveat — his selling point: excellent distribution with the ball at his feet. Pope can offer height and a wonderful ability to keep the ball out of the net, but he can’t yet offer assured passes. He became the first England goalkeeper in history to keep six clean-sheets from his first six caps. However, he made life hard for himself at times.
Phil Foden, Raheem Sterling and Kane were a vibrant and mobile attacking trio but missed a few presentable chances that prevented England from edging clear of their opponents in the scoreline just as they were in the balance of play.Embed from Getty Images
With Southgate umming and ahing about whether or not to make attacking changes to kill the game, Mason Mount all but clinched the points for the visitors midway through the second half. A careless pass out from the Albanian defence presented the ball straight to the feet of Sterling. Hungry for more and begging for chances to counterattack all evening, the England machine slipped into motion like clockwork. Kane to Mount via an all-important Raheem Sterling dummy; Mount’s caressed finish floated over goalkeeper Etrit Berisha.
It felt like one of those nights when the goals arrived at the perfect moments. England might have made a few structural tweaks had Kane not planted his header past Berisha as the interval approached; Southgate might have thrown on more fresh attacking talent had Mount not chipped the goalkeeper with the match entering its final stage. A qualifier on the road in Eastern Europe negotiated in textbook fashion.
So few games are played at international level that fans and pundits have less to go on than in the club game when making predictions and judgements. Throw in injuries and it becomes extremely hard to know what conclusions to draw and when. Do England play 4-3-3 again now? Is Kalvin Phillips moving closer to the starting XI, or simply the beneficiary of a number of injuries to other players? Can Trent Alexander-Arnold force his way back into the reckoning before the Euros? Will Jesse Lingard and James Ward-Prowse make the final 23?Embed from Getty Images
Even with the likes of Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez, Marcus Rashford, Jack Grealish and Jordan Pickford injured, the Poland match on Wednesday should give more clarity to these sorts of questions. That will be a proper test between two pretty evenly matched sides. This was nothing more than what England managers of yesteryear came to dub ‘a potential banana skin’.
But the only slipping up here was due to a newly laid pitch at the shiny new Air Albania Stadium. England were not scintillating, but nor were they lackadaisical. The group’s fourth seeds beaten with relative ease. England’s players will pat themselves on the back, and rightly so. But they weren’t facing a Robert Lewandowski — they’ll have to wait three days for that. The hardest thing about Poland is that their striker is the best on earth. The hardest thing about Albania was the heavy-duty helmet worn by substitute Klaus Gjasula. The day of judgement is not today.