After a barren 2020, Harry Kane is back on the England goal trail. The captain’s 33rd strike for his country, allied with the latest of his many assists this season, secured victory in Albania as he and Mason Mount ensured Gareth Southgate’s side go into Wednesday’s showdown with Poland with a maximum six points to their name in the World Cup qualifiers.
Kane may have been a frustrated spectator on Thursday, when Southgate rested him against San Marino and denied him the chance to accelerate towards Wayne Rooney’s England scoring record. But if his minutes were being rationed, Kane was saved for a tougher test and he provided the decisive touch after a dull start in Tirana.
He has been potent in the Premier League this season, but had failed to score in his previous six England games, although a drought of 497 days would have been more worrying had Euro 2020 been played last summer. Yet his was the header of a high-class finisher.
Mount’s subsequent strike was one of a man at the top of his game and underlined his growing importance to England. Southgate wants his wingers and attacking midfielders to chip in with more goals and this was Mount’s fourth in just 15 appearances for England.
Kane, too, has brought his club form to the international stage. He may finish the Premier League season as both its top scorer and leading assister so perhaps it was fitting he set up Mount’s goal.
Others also provided positives. Raheem Sterling produced a bright display at a point when some had started to question if he belonged in Southgate’s strongest side. Luke Shaw enjoyed a fine comeback to the international stage, winning his first cap since 2018, creating Kane’s goal and suggesting that he has leapfrogged Ben Chilwell to become the first-choice left-back.
England had control for large swathes but Albania were obdurate opponents. They were well configured by their Italian manager Edy Reja and they defended in numbers. Impeded by a slow pitch and long grass, England made a sterile start. Their first shot on target came after 32 minutes and was an optimistic long-range effort from Kyle Walker, as more than 80 percent of possession produced little.
Then came two fine openings in five minutes and a brilliantly-taken opener. Kane showed the striking instinct to dart in front of his marker and meet Shaw’s cross with a diving header.
The left flank proved England’s most profitable avenue, along with the increasingly influential Sterling. A second terrific cross almost yielded a second goal for Kane.
Sterling was the supplier, with Kane arriving at pace to connect well with a half-volley that clattered into the bar. When Sterling picked out Phil Foden, two of the four Manchester City players in the starting 11 combining, the youngster’s low shot was tipped on to the post by Etrit Berisha.
Thereafter Kane blazed over after a corner while Another attempt to double his tally brought a booking as he slid in on Berat Djimsiti and shot wide. Mount did succeed in doubling the lead. Sterling won the ball back, Kane picked out the runner from midfield and Mount finished with assurance.
Albania’s sequence of four consecutive wins was the joint best in their history but it came to an end. They could rue an early chance that could have enabled them to spring an upset. Southgate’s switch to 4-2-3-1 suggested he will only use three centre-backs against elite opponents. With a mere two, his side were carved open on the counter-attack when Albania fashioned the first chance. Myrto Uzuni wasted it, ballooning his shot over the bar after Elseid Hysaj picked him out.
Nick Pope went on to become the first England goalkeeper to keep six clean sheets in his first six caps. Once again, he was scarcely tested. The chances are that he will have rather more to do to extend that record against Robert Lewandowski at Wembley.