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 yesterday.
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.
Meanwhile, Sebastian Rudy, Sandro Wagner and Joshua Kimmich secured defending champions Germany’s place at the 2018 World Cup with a clinical 3-1 win over Northern Ireland in Belfast.
Rudy and Wagner’s glorious first-half strikes had their place all but wrapped up before Kimmich scored late on to extend Germany’s remarkable unbeaten away record to 47 World Cup qualifiers dating back to 1934.
The Northern Irish, for whom Josh Magennis grabbed a late consolation, couldn’t give manager Michael O’Neill a memorable scalp on his 50th match in charge as they slid to their first competitive home defeat since Portugal beat them 4-2 in September 2013.
However, they can still look forward to a place in the play-offs and a possible trip to Russia.
The raucous 18,000 crowd were silenced within two minutes as Rudy lashed home a stunning right-footed effort into the top corner from outside the area that gave Michael McGovern no chance.
It was 27-year-old Rudy’s first goal for his country in his 22nd appearance and brought to an end the hosts’ hope of equalling the record for successive clean sheets of six set by the side who qualified for the 1986 World Cup — the last time Northern Ireland reached the global showpiece.
McGovern though kept his team in the match a few minutes later as he pulled off a stunning reflex save to deny Wagner.
The visitors were all over the hosts, the Northern Irish saved from going behind further by the post from Wagner’s header.
However, the irrepressible Wagner would not be denied a third time, the 29-year-old Hoffenheim striker’s sublime curling left-footed strike in the 20th minute flashing past McGovern for his fourth goal of the campaign.
The hosts were living off scraps and rarely able to get out of their half but they were presented with a glorious chance to reduce the deficit five minutes before half-time.
A great ball in from the right by Magennis fell to Corry Evans who was fortunate to get a second chance after a poor first touch but could only poke an effort which took a deflection off Marc Andre ter Stegen for a corner.
The hosts — for whom Michael O’Neill sent on Stuart Dallas and Conor Washington to add a bit more vim going forward — were grateful to McGovern again as he produced another top class save to deny Thomas Mueller in the 50th minute.
Northern Ireland should have made it 2-1 with 15 minutes remaining after the industrious Magennis got the better of Mats Hummels and set up Washington whose rising effort struck the crossbar.
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