01 Dec 2021 | 06:39 | Football
Harry Kane wanted to take his time, to revel in the moment and, after the season he has had so far, who could blame him? The England captain walked over to Jordan Henderson, having watched his number go up in the 63rd minute and, with deliberate ceremony, transferred the armband to him. Then it was applause for all four corners of Wembley and a little trot towards the bench.
England were 5-0 up at the time, the goals having come during a first-half assault on the Albania goal, and Kane had three of them. He should have had more because the visitors gave a disaster-class in defending but he could be well pleased at his return, which served to slice through the latest round of scrutiny of him.
Kane had been poor in England’s 1-1 draw against Hungary here last month, albeit he was not alone, and everybody knows that he has had more managers at Tottenham this season (two) than he has Premier League goals (one).
This was much better, even if the paucity of the opposition had to be considered, Kane filling his boots to the extent that he moved to 44 England goals from 66 appearances. Wayne Rooney’s record of 53 moves ever nearer. With Harry Maguire and Henderson scoring the others, England delighted the crowd of 80,366 and, in the process, all but wrapped up automatic qualification for the World Cup in Qatar.
It is not yet official because Poland are three points behind in the group and there is one round of ties to come. Yet England need only a point in San Marino on Monday to secure their place. This is San Marino who are 210th and bottom of the Fifa rankings.
It was the perfect hat-trick for Kane: header, left foot, right foot and the last one was the showstopper. Phil Foden sent over a corner and everybody – including the Albania defenders – watched Kane get his body side-on for the scissor kick. How was the ball allowed to drop without a challenge? It was one of the many examples of Albania’s shortcomings at the back. Kane was unconcerned. His connection was true and it flicked off the substitute Kastriot Dermaku en route to the roof of the net.
The performance against Hungary had been laboured, Gareth Southgate’s deployment of Foden and Mason Mount as attacking No 8s in a 4-3-3 not working and the manager began here as he had finished that night – in a 3-4-3 with Henderson as one of the central midfield bolts.
Too cautious? What Southgate will say is that this is not fantasy football. Balance and solidity are everything. Moreover, it is players that make systems and Reece James, who came in as a marauding right wing-back, illustrated the point.
Pinned high up the flank, it was the in-form Chelsea player who drove the move that led to England’s second goal, which sucked the fight out of Albania. He held off Lorenc Trashi on an eye-catching surge and, when the ball broke for Henderson, England were in business. Henderson swapped passes with Foden and his cross from the byline was perfect for Kane, who had dropped into space. It was the easiest of headed finishes.
England had led when Harry Maguire benefited from the first evidence that Albania’s defending was going to be generous to a fault, wandering unchallenged on to James’s free-kick to plant a header past Thomas Strakosha. To the fury of Roy Keane in the TV studio, Maguire celebrated by sticking his fingers in his ears, as if to say that he had not listened to the criticism of his performances this season. To Keane, one goal against Albania did not provide redemption.
Henderson looked anything but a screening midfielder and his goal for 3-0 was a beauty, finessing a give-and-go with Kane after good work by James and Foden, stepping inside Ardian Ismajli and dinking a left-foot finish back into the opposite corner.
Myrto Uzuni had blown a gilt-edged one-on-one for Albania in the 14th minute at 1-0, shooting too close to Jordan Pickford after Kyle Walker’s horror back pass, and it really was hard not to wince at their attempts to keep England at arm’s length.
It is no exaggeration to say that Kane could have had six before the interval, although he could be happy enough with the single hat-trick. His second and England’s fourth followed a pass from Raheem Sterling and a simple shoulder drop that opened up the space against the hapless Dermaku. Kane whipped the finish into the far corner.
Albania were lucky that Kane did not hurt them even more during a golden 45 minutes for England, marked by excellent movement and combinations. He had one side-footed shot blocked, dragged another chance just wide and sent a stooping header past the post. Kane could also point to yet another effort being pushed away by Strakosha.
The big crowd reinforced the shift back towards normality and there was a sizeable Albanian contingent within it, presumably watching through the gaps in their fingers. Their team had been physical at the outset, leaving a few markers on Kane & Co but it was not long before they were chasing shadows.
The second half was predictably of lower intensity, notable principally for Emile Smith Rowe getting on for his debut. Albania wanted to save face and they did so. England were not in the mood to deepen the humiliation.
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