London (AFP) – England will look to red-hot Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane to fire them to the World Cup finals when they tackle Slovenia in their penultimate qualifying match on Thursday.
After a barren August, 24-year-old Kane hit brilliant form in September, scoring 13 goals in eight matches for club and country.
Victory over Slovenia at Wembley will give England a place at next year’s World Cup in Russia and with Kane scoring goals so freely, his team-mates will take to the field buoyed by an extra measure of belief.
“He is hot, isn’t he?” goalkeeper Joe Hart said to journalists at England’s St George’s Park base earlier this week.
“He is scoring just as many goals as the people we have related to as world-class and he has been doing it for many seasons. Harry gets put in that bracket and deserves to be.
“He has (Mauricio) Pochettino, one of the hottest managers in the world, who regards him highly and there are reasons for that.
“Harry is just brilliant at what he does and he is just one of the best out there. He keeps scoring goals and you cannot ask for any more than that. Long may it continue in an England shirt.”
Since Kane returned to the international fold at the end of last season following a spate of injuries, his goals have helped to keep Gareth Southgate’s England side on course for qualification.
His 93rd-minute equaliser prevented England from falling to a first defeat against Scotland since 1999 in June’s 2-2 draw in Glasgow and he netted twice as Southgate’s men won 4-0 away to Malta last month.
Kane and Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson have shared the captaincy between them in England’s last four games and the wearer of the armband on Thursday will give a clue as to Southgate’s long-term thinking on the matter.
– Slovenia ‘not afraid’ –
Kane’s Spurs team-mate Dele Alli is unavailable due to suspension after being given a one-match ban by FIFA for flashing his middle finger during England’s 2-1 win over Slovakia last month.
Manchester United centre-back Phil Jones and Manchester City midfielder Fabian Delph have both withdrawn from the squad, joining Spurs left-back Danny Rose, Liverpool’s Adam Lallana and Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy on the sidelines.
Drafted into the squad to take Delph’s place, 21-year-old Spurs midfielder Harry Winks will hope to get his first taste of senior international football.
Five points clear of Slovakia at the top of UEFA qualifying Group F, England need just two points from Thursday’s game and Sunday’s trip to Lithuania to reach the World Cup for the sixth time in succession.
But having been held to a 0-0 draw in the reverse fixture against Slovenia a year ago, they know that completing the job at the first time of asking will be no foregone conclusion.
Third in the group, Srecko Katanec’s Slovenia trail Slovakia by a slender point and are above Scotland on goal difference in a knife-edge battle for a play-off berth.
While Slovenia captain Bostjan Cesar is conscious of the threat posed by Kane and his team-mates, he says his team will approach the game with no sense of inferiority.
“I saw Kane is in great form, but England have several other quality players too,” said Cesar, whose side complete their qualifying campaign at home to Scotland on Sunday.
“We respect England, but we are not afraid of them. Last time we played them at home and it was easier. Now we have to be focused for the whole match, otherwise we could be punished.”
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