London (AFP) – Harry Kane toed in a 94th-minute winner as England secured their place at next year’s World Cup in Russia with a thoroughly lacklustre 1-0 victory over Slovenia on Thursday.
Gareth Southgate’s side looked utterly bereft of ideas at a somnolent, two thirds-full Wembley until skipper Kane converted Kyle Walker’s inviting cross to score his 14th goal in nine games for club and country.
The result left England six points clear at the top of Group F above neighbours Scotland, whose 1-0 win over 10-man Slovakia in Glasgow left them in pole position to claim the play-off place.
It is the sixth time in succession England have qualified for the World Cup, but after making such heavy work of defeating Slovenia, they are unlikely to give the game’s super-powers many sleepless nights.
Prior to Kane’s strike, the 61,598 fans in attendance at England’s national stadium had taken to entertaining themselves by launching paper aeroplanes at the pitch.
Nevertheless, for Southgate it represented mission accomplished, a year on from his hasty appointment as manager — initially on an interim basis — after his predecessor Sam Allardyce was felled by a newspaper sting.
Row upon row of empty red seats, allied to a sleepy crowd, had made for a soporific first half in which England were repeatedly guilty of allowing Slovenia in behind them.
Goalkeeper Joe Hart was twice brought into action after Raheem Sterling and Walker conceded possession, while the unmarked Roman Bezjak miscued an attempted bicycle kick when he was picked out by Josip Ilicic.
Tottenham Hotspur striker Kane, in his latest audition for the permanent captaincy, could regularly be seen dropping deep in an attempt to get his team going and he worked Jan Oblak with a 30-yard sighter.
Atletico Madrid goalkeeper Oblak was properly tested shortly after, springing to his left to palm Jordan Henderson’s effort behind.
Marcus Rashford, stationed wide on the left, was England’s most enterprising performer and he sent Oblak scuttling across his goal with an audacious attempt from a 35-yard free-kick in first-half stoppage time.
After another scare early in the second, Hart almost fumbling a header from Bojan Jokic, England belatedly manufactured some thrust in the game’s last third.
Rashford and Sterling were each denied by last-ditch clearances, the former after under-cooking an attempted lob, the latter seeing a side-foot effort athletically diverted wide by Slovenia skipper Bostjan Cesar.
Kane also dragged wide with his left foot, but had man-of-the-match Hart not raced out quickly and alertly to thwart substitute Tim Matavz in the closing stages, the hosts would have found themselves behind.
News of Scotland’s goal against Slovakia lifted the pressure on England and they duly snatched victory when Kane launched himself at Walker’s cross to give the long-suffering home fans something to cheer at last.
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