England qualify for the World Cup as Kane scores late winner vs. Slovenia
LONDON -- Three quick thoughts from England's 1-0 World Cup qualifying win over Slovenia at Wembley on Thursday that sees the Three Lions qualify for Russia 2018.
1. England qualify for World Cup -- but don't expect them to win it
Harry Kane's stoppage-time winner earned a 1-0 victory against Slovenia and secured England's place at Russia 2018, but it was anything but easy on the eye at Wembley.
Prior to Kane's goal, Slovenia had frustrated England and a restless Wembley crowd by stifling manager Gareth Southgate's Three Lions and creating their own dangerous chances on the counterattack. But Tottenham forward Kane justified his selection as captain by sweeping home from close range in the dying moments to ensure that England would not limp into the World Cup on the back of a dismal stalemate.
Having qualified for Russia, however, the hard work starts now for Southgate and his players.
The first lessons will be learned in Wembley friendlies next month against Germany (Nov. 10) and Brazil (Nov. 14), when England will have to find a way to perform against nations likely to travel to Russia as favourites rather than also-rans next summer. England are too slow and predictable against teams with limited ambition, such as Slovenia, and that is a problem Southgate has to address.
There are also plans for friendlies against the Netherlands and Italy in early 2018, but this performance highlighted the many issues that Southgate must deal with.
2. Kane and Rashford are England's only hope
Southgate is a realist, so the England coach will not try to fool anybody by suggesting that his team can challenge the likes of Germany, Brazil and Spain in Russia, but in Kane and Marcus Rashford, Southgate can at least count on two top-class forwards at the World Cup.
England have problems in goal, in defence and in midfield, but despite those shortcomings, they will always have a chance with Kane and Rashford in the forward line, as Kane proved with his stoppage-time winner against Slovenia.
The Spurs forward is now closing in on world-class status, with the 24-year-old taking his domestic and international form onto the Champions League stage this season.
Kane, captain for the night against Slovenia, is a goal machine, and strikers of that quality can lift even the most average teams. He endured a nightmare Euro 2016 after a long season at Tottenham, but Kane is now fitter and stronger, and he could be one of the stars of the tournament in Russia.
And just behind him, Manchester United youngster Rashford is developing into one of the most exciting attacking talents in Europe under Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford.
Some judges believe that Rashford can be England's version of France forward Kylian Mbappe. Rashford's pace, trickery and eye for the goal are making him a mercurial part of Southgate's squad. Rashford should have done better when he tried to chip goalkeeper Jan Oblak in the second half, but that was perhaps overconfidence rather than timidity on his part.
Both Kane and Rashford have previously shown nerveless finishing in front of goal, so even if England have issues to address further back, the club can at least claim to have a potent strike force. And that can help a team go a long way.
3. Can Southgate find an answer to the midfield problem?
An international manager is ultimately only as good as the players he can select, and Southgate's problem is that he has no variety in his midfield options.
Southgate was fortunate enough to play on England teams alongside the likes of Paul Gascoigne and Paul Scholes, two players with the ability and confidence to take a risk or play a forward pass. The current crop has no such talent within the options available to the manager, and there is also a distinct lack of box-to-box, goal-scoring midfielders in the mould of Steven Gerrard or Frank Lampard.
How England would love to have a player like Kevin De Bruyne in their ranks -- a midfielder capable of changing a game in an instant. As it stands, they have the likes of Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson, who started against Slovenia, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was named on the right.
On the bench, Southgate had Harry Winks and Jake Livermore, hardly players of the calibre of De Bruyne and certainly not in the same class as Gascoigne and Scholes or Lampard and Gerrard.
Dele Alli's success in the No. 10 role means he is unlikely to be considered in central midfield, so how does Southgate come up with an answer before the World Cup?
The cupboard truly looks bare. There will be calls for Jack Wilshere to be given another chance, but the Arsenal man has seemed like yesterday's man for a while now.
So in terms of midfield creativity, the landscape really is bleak for Southgate's England.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_