LONDON — Antonio Conte rued the timing of this international break coming so soon after becoming Tottenham’s new head coach, but Friday’s 5-0 win over Albania in World Cup qualifying could be the catalyst for Harry Kane to finally kickstart his season.
It should be noted at the outset that Albania were a shadow of the team that arrived at Wembley occupying third place in Group I having beaten Hungary home and away in the process, failing to put up even a modicum of the challenge Gareth Southgate anticipated before kick-off. But this was nevertheless a restorative night for Kane, whose first-half hat-trick etched his name even more prominently in England‘s record books, perhaps providing a timely reminder to all, including himself, of the 28-year-old’s enduring pedigree.
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Harry Maguire had already headed the home side into a ninth-minute lead, meeting Reece James‘ free-kick at the far post with an emphatic finish, by the time Kane got in on the act. Phil Foden released Jordan Henderson, who burst to the byline and stood up an inch-perfect cross that Kane, unmarked, headed home from inside the six-yard box. A left-foot finish and a fine acrobatic volley — either side of turning provider for Henderson — completed the “perfect” hat-trick, the first time an England player has done so since David Platt in 1993.
It also took Kane to joint-fourth on England’s all-time with 44 goals, past Michael Owen and tied with Jimmy Greaves, his fellow Spurs striker who sadly passed away aged 81 in September. Only Jimmy Greaves (six) and Gary Lineker (five) have now scored more hat-tricks for England than Harry Kane’s four.
Kane’s goals also made him England’s record scorer in competitive matches, surpassing Wayne Rooney‘s tally of 37 to move to 39. These statistics are all reminders of Kane’s place in history, but it is the here and now that has been the problem. Some will point to the modest opposition providing an ideal chance for stat-padding, but Kane has not looked this sharp against any level of opposition all season.
“I thought Harry gave a brilliant centre-forward’s performance,” said Southgate after the match. “He held the ball up, played other people in. His all-round game was excellent.”
England has been something of a haven for Kane compared to his form for Spurs, something Conte will clearly aim to address. To underline the point, he has six international goals to his name this term. Kane’s last six Premier League goals stretch back all the way to April 14. It can only be a beginning, especially with minnows San Marino to come next on Monday, but Kane has needed a performance to point to as evidence he is capable of putting a difficult summer behind him, and this was it.
Kane, middle, put on a show for England on Friday night. Despite limited opposition, it was a reminder of what the Spurs striker is capable of. Eddie Keogh – The FA/Getty Images
“Whenever you put on an England shirt you want to do everyone proud,” Kane told ITV. “Maybe we had a point to prove and we came out on fire.
“Whenever I get chances, I feel like I’m going to score. I could probably have had six on another night.”
In fact, after last month’s 1-1 draw against Hungary, this was a night when England were able to hit back at their critics in multiple ways, again caveated with the non-existent threat Albania posed.
“We had an edge about us tonight and I think we’re at our best when we have an edge,” said Southgate. “We had a collective response needed from the last game — 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.”
There is still a suspicion Southgate’s inherent caution might prevent England from truly maximising the attacking options at their disposal, a fear revived in some quarters when news came through he was starting with a back three and Manchester City‘s £100million man Jack Grealish on the bench. Yet England raced away with this game; in response to recent condemnation of his displays at Manchester United, Maguire’s goal was followed by the defender cupping his ears in celebration. One of his most prominent detractors, Roy Keane, remained unimpressed from his position in the ITV studio.
“He’s like ‘shutting the critics up’,” said Keane. “I think It’s embarrassing. He’s been a disgrace the last few months for United. He thinks if he scores there, he’s going to shut his critics up. Embarrassing.”
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Rightly, most observers won’t be convinced of any meaningful change off the back of such a facile victory, but Henderson’s role still had a redemptive feel, too. Declan Rice, withdrawn from the squad here due to illness, and Kalvin Phillips were the bedrock of England’s midfield as they went to the final of Euro 2020. Henderson provided a reminder of the dynamism he can provide from central midfield, making one and scoring another, a clever left-foot finish after a fine one-two with Kane on the edge of Albania’s box.
Kane was given the final 27 minutes off as the second half descended into a cavalcade of substitutions, cheers and paper aeroplanes.
“Whenever I score I seem to be sharp, whenever I don’t I’m not sharp anymore,” said Kane. “That is part and parcel of being a striker. The most important thing is we are moving forward as a team.”
Qualification is all but assured with England only needing a point against San Marino — a team that has won just one match in its 31-year history of international football — to top Group I. The relative serenity of their qualifying campaign will feel cathartic for Southgate, although he knows the real judgement will come in Qatar at next year’s World Cup.
Bigger tests lie in wait for Kane but at least, for the first time in a while, he looks in a better place to take them on.