This was not exactly a sparkling England victory in Tirana but it was clinical, efficient and eventually very comfortable. Harry Kane’s superb header helped his side recover from a stodgy start to ensure they would take six points from their first two engagements of this World Cup qualifying campaign, overcome Albania and take control of the group.
Victory never looked in doubt once Kane’s first international goal in nearly a year-and-a-half broke Albania’s resolve and the impressive Mason Mount added a fine second, enhancing his status as one of Gareth Southgate’s most important players ahead of this summer’s European Championship, though it initially seemed as though the points would not come so easily.
Though attempting to qualify for their first World Cup, Albania were always likely to provide a sterner test than San Marino managed at Wembley on Thursday night. Edoardo Reja’s side celebrated promotion to the second tier of the Nations League in the autumn and were looking to extend a four-game winning run, their best in more than a decade.
Matters were not helped by the Air Albania Stadium’s patchwork quilt of a pitch, which bobbled and slowed the pace of the game considerably. Yet Kane’s breakthrough towards the end of the first half eased any early jitters and provided England with the platform to dominate the remainder.
Southgate was not entirely happy with how his side closed the game out. "We had opportunities to kill the game with a third and I didn’t like way we managed the game in the last 15 minutes," he admitted, but the win was all that counts. Attention will now turn to Poland at Wembley on Wednesday, when an opening hat-trick of qualifying victories could already go a long way to securing a place in Qatar.
The England manager persisted with playing four at the back rather than a three-man defence, with Luke Shaw making his first international appearance in more than two-and-a-half years, but there was a change in the midfield set-up with Mount operating as a No 10 in front of two more conservative players in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips. This display of caution contributed to England’s slow start.
In fact, the best chance before Kane’s goal fell to Albania. Mount’s eagerness to retrieve possession is partly why he has become a Southgate favourite but one early bout of industrious pressing was followed by a wayward back pass which sent Albania’s entire forward line through one-on-one. Fortunately for Nick Pope, starting again in Jordan Pickford’s absence, he only had to watch Myrto Uzuni’s wild attempt fly over.
England largely dealt with Albania’s threat on the break but toiled in the search of an opening of their own. The pitch was not helping, but then nor was their unfamiliarity with the new formation, the tendency for Mount and Phil Foden to operate in similar areas, or the tenacity of Albania’s press. England were in a tight spot but, as is so often the case, they escaped through the sheer quality of Kane.
Mount’s tireless work off-the-ball was again key, in fairness, with the Chelsea playmaker winning a duel with Qazim Laci to revive a dying attack. A lay-off to Shaw allowed the rejuvenated Manchester United left-back to cross for the far post, where Kane had already edged in front of his marker Frederic Veseli to execute a fine diving header, guiding Shaw’s centre into the bottom right-hand corner of Etrit Berisha’s goal.
Having waited 498 days to score for his country, Kane might have had another four minutes later. Raheem Sterling’s cross was even better than Shaw’s, and whipped around the back of Albania’s helpless defence, but arrived too quickly for Kane whose half volley from six yards out crashed against the underside of the crossbar. England were still only one up but at least they were now unquestionably in the ascendancy.
The second eventually followed shortly after the hour mark and was again an example of how this side is learning to be dangerous off the ball as well as on it. Sterling’s clever anticipation of a slack Berat Djimsiti pass set his team-mates away deep in Albanian territory and Kane’s slide rule pass on the edge of the box picked out Mount. An exquisite, dinked finish over Berisha put the contest to bed and mainted England’s perfect start.
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