England 5–0 Albania
- England struck all five in a superb first-half showing as they all-but qualified for the World Cup with victory over Albania
- Harry Kane treated a packed Wembley to his fourth England hat-trick
Two sloppy draws earlier this autumn meant England had somehow allowed their penultimate World Cup qualifier to become a match they mustn’t lose. They didn’t lose — in fact, they had Albania beaten within 18 minutes. Then once they had them beaten, they had them torn to shreds.
This was the perfect response to their disappointing home draw with Hungary last month. What’s more, it fulfilled precisely the function Gareth Southgate hoped it would: playing into form a number of his players out of sorts or out of the team at their clubs.
Harry Maguire shoved his fingers in his ears as he peeled away from the penalty box to celebrate England’s first, ‘silencing the haters.’ When Manchester United have been criticised this season, their captain invariably has too. His response was a signature bullet-header from an eighth-minute free-kick. Gareth Southgate punched the air, on the night he tied level with Sven-Göran Eriksson on 67 matches in charge. Only England’s first two managers — Walter Winterbottom and Alf Ramsey —oversaw more.Embed from Getty Images
If Harry Maguire needed to jolt himself into form, Harry Kane certainly did. He and Spurs have looked lethargic and inconsistent so far this term. He was neither here. Jordan Henderson played an excellent one-two with Phil Foden, receiving the ball back from the City star having continued his run in-behind. England’s vice-captain edged towards the byline before digging out a cross which Kane nodded in with the simplest of headers. 2–0 and not even 20 minutes on the clock.
This felt like another step on the road to footballing normality — a Wembley qualifier against an Eastern European opposition whose fans were the minority in numbers but not in voice. However, among the visitors, the supporters were the only star performers. On the pitch, Albania were being pulled this way and that. England’s 3–4–3 was deployed more due to the players who had dropped out of the squad through injury than due to tactical choice. Southgate admitted that. But it ended up causing the Albanians a first-half nightmare.
Kane returned the favour to Henderson just before the half-hour mark. The Liverpool skipper played into the striker’s feet. Kane slipped Henderson through, and then the midfielder sat one defender down before tucking the ball intelligently past the goalkeeper. He started the year one of England’s most-capped-ever midfielders without a goal. “It’s coming. I can feel it,” he told EnglandFootball.org after the Czech Republic game at the Euros. He then scored against Ukraine in the quarter-final, and now has two. He’s been excellent all season.Embed from Getty Images
England’s centre-forward missed two chances to notch a second, before putting that right on 33 minutes. A stray pass into no-man’s-land left Sterling with fields of green to run gleefully into. The City wide forward played in his captain, and Kane did the rest. Kane took the ball wide on the left — what looked like too far wide. He then unleashed an almighty drive high into the corner with his ‘weaker’ foot. Goalkeeper Thomas Strakosha had no chance. It was four, but only if you were counting.
Southgate was impressed by Sterling, Maguire and Kane, whose club managers will all no doubt be pleased with their performances on the night. “I thought we had an edge about us tonight,” Southgate told EnglandFootball.org after the match. “I think we’re at our best when we have an edge. We had a collective response needed from our last game, and we talked about that all week. We were very clear why we felt we hadn’t got that performance, and I thought we really addressed that — in the first half in particular. That was really pleasing.
“The three guys were very strong. Hard to pick out individuals tonight. I thought Harry [Kane]’s all-round performance was excellent. Not just the goals, but his hold-up play. He bullied his centre-backs, he brought his teammates in very well, pressured the opponent well. So I thought it was a really pleasing performance from him.
“Raheem looked dangerous all night,” added the manager. “Harry Maguire, to have a few days on the training pitch was helpful for him. We had good structure to the team. And a very important goal from the set play. He’s converting more and more of those for us now, which is really important.”
Things would get even better for England. From Foden’s stoppage-time corner, Harry Kane completed his hat-trick with a spectacular overhead kick. A perfect hat-trick: header, left foot, (bicycle-kicked) right foot. He was left kneeling, smiling, panting, and kissing his wedding ring for the third time in 29 minutes. Kane was brought off midway through the second half, when England simply sought to close out an already very handsome victory. He now has 44 international goals, and has overtaken Wayne Rooney as the country’s leading scorer in competitive matches.Embed from Getty Images
Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe got his first taste of senior England football replacing Foden for the final 28 minutes. The Arsenal youngster made as bright a showing as anyone in a second half which was about managing loads, not scoring loads.
England didn’t score loads in the second half. In fact they didn’t score any. But it was job done in the first half, and to quite devastating effect.
They now have 42 goals in a single calendar year, comfortably more than any England team have ever managed before. And who await on Monday in their final match of year? San Marino, of course: the worst-ranked side on the planet. Even if England lose, which would be more humorous than humiliating, they’ll almost certainly still qualify on the night. Tickets to Qatar will be cheaper if you buy them now.