KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY: England will play at the World Cup finals in Russia next year but only courtesy of a desperately poor 1-0 win at home to Slovenia at Wembley, the winner jabbed home in stoppage time by Harry Kane. The outcome of England’s final qualifier in Lithuania on Sunday is immaterial.
Not that England should go Russia with any hope of making headlines, based on this sloppy display. The hosts lacked energy, their passing was poor and in the end they were saved from embarrassment by a brave second-half save from keeper Joe Hart from substitute Tim Matavz when the game was still goalless.
England’s lethargy was apparent right from the kickoff. It was not until the 13th minute that captain Kane managed the hosts’ first shot which keeper Jan Oblak saved by diving to his left.
A poor Wembley crowd – reduced perhaps by earlier concerns over rail and Tube strike threats – found it hard to raise much atmosphere in support of an England team.
Not that England encouraged a rousing performance, with manager Gareth Southgate having started with two defensive midfielders in Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier.
Raheem Sterling took over the No10 role in the absence of Dele Alli, suspended for an ill-judged single-finger gesture.
Henderson went close in the 25th minute with an angled shot from the left which keeper Jan Oblak deflected wide for a corner that Slovenia cleared easily. Oblak then made an even better save to deny Marcus Rashford just before the end of a disappointing dull first half.
England’s passing, in the second half, grew progressively worse as Slovenia began to gain in confidence. Even when England managed a rapid counter-attack, Sterling freed Rashford only for the Manchester United to flip the ball meekly into a forest of Slovene legs.
Sterling then had a chance of his own but a low shot was diverted for a corner by the outstretched leg of centre-back Bostjan Cesar. Minutes later Sterling set up Kane whose low drive skidded narrowly wide of Oblak’s left-hand upright.
Slovenia, needing a win to keep their qualifying hopes alive, now began to show more serious attacking intent and Hart saved bravely from the onrushing Matavz.
It said everything about England’s awful performance that one of the loudest cheers was raised for a hooligan who ran on the pitch and briefly evaded the pursuing stewards . . . until Kane stretched to divert home Kyle Walker’s right-wing cross in stoppage time.
At the final whistle England’s players applauded their fans but not many had stayed around to acknowledge them.
** Harry Kane will not necessarily remain England captain for the World Cup finals in Russia.
Manager Gareth Southgate had said before the game that he is still intent on handing out the captain’s armband on a match-by-match basis.
He said: “Harry’s leadership qualities are invaluable to us as a team and he’s clearly in a good moment in his form. We enjoy working with him and I’ve known him a long time. He’s improved and is maturing all the time as well.
“The important thing for me was when we looked at the group of players at the start, we saw potential leaders but lads who hadn’t had experience of leading and how do we allow for that to happen, and how do we give them a feel of it, and I think that’s worked well over the last few months.
“All of those experiences will stand them in good stead. Different situations, different opportunities to be in front of people, sharing a responsibility of team. I think that’s key.”