England welcome back the true Harry Kane in Albania rout as captain silences critics with excellent hat-trick

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Welcome back, Harry Kane.

Yes, it was only Albania – but this was England’s deadliest goal-scorer in vintage form to effectively secure World Cup qualification with a 5-0 win.

Yes, the visitors appeared to do everything they could to rouse him from his slump – but Kane exploited a hapless defence in the manner great strikers do.

It was a good night for Kane, a good night for England and a good night for Tottenham too.

This may turn out to be the turning point in a season that has seen him scrutinised more than ever before. And how he needed it.

It has been uncomfortable to watch Kane at times over the past few months – even dating back to the Euros. Add in that failed move to Manchester City and it has been a miserable time for the Three Lions captain.

But here he was with a spring in his step, a sharpness and a hunger that have been hard to find as his form deserted him.

A first-half hat-trick saw him surpass Wayne Rooney’s record of 37 competitive goals for his country – and now with 44 in total, he is within nine of becoming England’s all-time leading scorer.

It is an inevitability that he will take that crown from Rooney – and it was never in doubt, even during his struggles this term. But for the first time since he established himself at the point of England’s attack there were genuine questions as to how long he could maintain his undroppable status.

Those questions can be put back on the shelf for now. And both Gareth Southgate and Antonio Conte will hope they are shelved for good.

What was notable here was how often Kane was in the right position to punish Albania. It sounds simple enough, but a common issue for him of late has been his tendency to drop so deep as to be almost be removed from the firing line completely.

It was fascinating to hear Southgate speak beforehand of Kane becoming a “reference point” higher up the pitch – and how that had been a discussion at Tottenham as well.

What took so long?

Putting England’s best finisher into the positions where he can most hurt the opposition is hardly rocket science. Yet there appeared to be an obsession with turning him into a No9 and 10.

While his ability to link play and open defences with his vision are beyond question – it is his goal-scoring that has established himself as one of the finest strikers of his generation.

It felt like the penny dropped against Albania with Kane repeatedly on the shoulder of the last defender to torment the visitors.

He scored three, but it could have been so many more.

A similar performance against San Marino on Monday and Rooney’s record will come ever closer into focus – and Tottenham will get a player back who is brimming with confidence as Conte’s revolution begins. And for Southgate, there will be the relief of no more question marks hanging over his most important player.

England welcomed back Harry Kane at Wembley after the Tottenham man scored a hat-trick against Albania (AFP via Getty Images)
England welcomed back Harry Kane at Wembley after the Tottenham man scored a hat-trick against Albania (AFP via Getty Images)

Kane’s celebration of his third goal on the stroke of half-time underlined just how significant he believed the performance to be.

On his knees, he clenched his fist in near-silent celebration as the weight of the world fell from his shoulders.

This was a perfect way for him to sign off from Wembley for the year.

Southgate had vowed to say goodbye in style after an unforgettable 2021 – and a first-half rout must have had the sell-out crowd thinking they were going to witness something very special.

It did not turn out like that as England lost their flow and intensity after the break, but five goals were enough to make qualification for Qatar a mere formality.

A point is all that is needed against San Marino to make certain of top spot in Group I – but goal difference of plus-six on second-place Poland, it would take an incredible swing to deny England safe passage to the World Cup.

Victory was a certainty from the moment Harry Maguire put England ahead in the ninth minute – heading in Reece James’ free-kick at the far post.

It was a perfectly delivered set piece from the Chelsea wingback, with Maguire timing his run to stay onside and heading across the goal.

It felt like a source for plenty more chances for the home side, given just how robust the challenges from Albania were in the opening exchanges.

But the scores could have been level almost immediately when Kyle Walker’s horrible backpass went straight to Myrto Uzuni, who had a clear run at goal. With only Jordan Pickford to beat he rushed his effort and allowed the England goalkeeper to palm away.

James was heavily-involved in England’s second after 18 minutes, showing impressive strength under the challenge of Lorenc Trashi before the ball broke to Phil Foden.

The Manchester City forward slipped a pass to Jordan Henderson on the right, who stood up a cross for the unmarked Kane to head home from six yards.

It was three only 10 minutes later when Henderson then turned goal-scorer, waltzing through the penalty area after a one-two with Kane and turning the ball past Thomas Strakosha.

It quickly became a case of just how many England would score with Kane adding his second in the 33rd-minute – firing home at the near post.

He had plenty of opportunities to get a hat-trick before the break – and did so right on the stroke of half-time with a flying volley from Ben Chilwell’s corner.

It was the best of the lot – and perhaps the only surprise was that it was the last of the goals, too.

Albania defended with better organisation after the break, while England’s fluidity could not match their first-half levels.

Still, it was job done for Southgate’s side – and for Kane, possibly the moment his season finally began.

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