LJUBLJANA: Interim manager Gareth Southgate thanked “outstanding” Joe Hart for saving England from a first qualifying defeat in seven years on a difficult night in Slovenia.
The Three Lions’ run of 14 straight qualifying wins ended in Ljubljana, but things could have been worse was it not for the inspired display of their goalkeeper.
Lithuania are up to second spot after late goals from Fedor Cernych and Arvydas Novikovas, from the penalty spot after Jonathan Caruana was sent off for Malta, gave them a 2-0 victory. Scotland lost 3-0 in Slovakia after a Robert Mak double and another strike from Adam Nemec eased the hosts to success.
Putting a difficult Euro 2016 behind him, Hart – unfancied by Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola and farmed out on loan to Torino – had to be at his best against the side ranked 67th in the world to secure a fortuitous 0-0 draw.
The 29-year-old produced a string of top saves, topped by somehow pushing a Jasmin Kurtic header onto the crossbar and flicking it away on his way down.
“I had a long chat with him earlier in the week just to talk about what he does when he looks at his best,” interim England manager Southgate said of Hart. “The two words he started with were ‘calm and composed’ and I thought that’s what he has been in the two matches we’ve had.
“His decision making has been excellent, his use of the ball with his feet has been very, very good. “And, you know, two or three of his saves tonight were absolutely outstanding, so I think he showed the level that he’s capable of. He was top, top class.”
Hart’s display saved his team but could not hide their lacklustre display in Slovenia, where captain Wayne Rooney’s arrival off the bench with 17 minutes remaining was unable to spark a late winner.
England were ponderous for large portions of the match but the draw on the back of Saturday’s straightforward 2-0 win against Malta keeps them top of Group F after a disruptive fortnight in the wake of Sam Allardyce’s abrupt departure.
Southgate’s final two matches in interim charge come at Wembley next month, when a friendly against Spain follows a qualifying clash with Scotland.
“We can play better, for sure,” he said. “The opportunities they had were self-inflicted. That’s an area that clearly needs to be better. “I think on a difficult pitch, our final ball a couple of times could have been better and we had a couple of chances that, on another day, I think our forward players would finish.
“We owe our goalkeeper for an outstanding performance to keep the clean sheet.
“I think if you had said to me before the game would I have been happy with that result? No. “But in the context of the way the game went, the way we started both halves and given the overall objective of qualifying from the group, I think it’s a very important point.”
Robert Lewandowski saved Poland as his injury-time goal sealed a 2-1 win over Armenia. Armenia looked to have battled to a creditable draw, having played since the 30th minute a man down following Gael Andonian’s two yellow cards, and subsequent red.
Lewandowski first pounced just after half-time but the visitors equalised through Marcos Pizzelli’s free-kick shortly afterwards. The Bayern Munich striker then settled the game in the fourth minute of stoppage time when he got his head to a Jakub Blaszczykowski cross and Poland joined Montenegro on seven points at the top of Group E.
Fatos Beciraj was Montenegro’s match-winner against Denmark in Copenhagen. The Dynamo Moscow forward struck the only goal of the game, while the third match in the group saw Romania draw 0-0 in Kazakhstan.
A pair of goals in four first-half minutes saw Germany coast to a 2-0 victory over Northern Ireland in Hanover. Julian Draxler’s opener and Sami Khedira’s header both came inside the first 17 minutes as the reigning world champions maintained their 100 per cent start.
The other games in Group C saw Czech Republic and Azerbaijan draw 0-0 while Norway got their campaign up and running with a 4-1 success over San Marino. Norway led through Davide Simoncini’s 11th-minute own goal but San Marino equalised nine minutes after half-time through Mattia Stefanelli.
Adama Diomande restored Norway’s lead with a curling effort from the edge of the penalty area in the 77th minute before Martin Samuelsen’s powerful 12-yard effort gave Per-Mathias Hogmo’s team a cushion. Bournemouth forward Josh King completed the scoring and made it a more respectable scoreline in Norway’s favour with an 83rd-minute finish.