Kane emerges from soul-sickness to rediscover his thrilling, urgent best | England

Well, that seemed to go pretty well. Play a little further forward? Let me see what I can rustle up. As Harry Kane rampaged around the Wembley pitch, traumatising an increasingly desolate Albanian central defence, you could almost hear Antonio Conte nodding and snorting, one hand thrust indignantly into his blazer pocket. You see? This is what happens when we remove the menace of condiments.

Kane was almost comically good in the first half of this World Cup qualifier. He was cartoonish, outsized. He had seven shots at goal. He scored a perfect hat-trick. He made another one. His hat-trick goal was a pirouetting aerial scissor kick, the final significant act in England’s 5-0 victory.

Mainly, he moved a little differently. And for all the headline numbers, this was perhaps the most significant part. On his most disconsolate days Kane has the air of an old, damp, faithful hound dutifully tramping the moors, refusing to whimper, craving his basket. Here he was thrillingly urgent, careering about from the opening moments, head held high, blue socks pumping the turf.

Kane may or may not be fully back, his soul-sickness banished at one cathartic stroke. But there was hunger here. The lid of the sarcophagus has been cast aside. It will be fascinating to see exactly what kind of player emerges.

There had been some cautious talk in the buildup to this game about a re-geared role for Kane. He would, we heard, be playing as a centre-forward. This has been an easy grenade to lob at Kane during his barren spells. Why doesn’t he play football a little closer to the opposition goal? The assumption seems to be that this is a mistake, that Kane’s compass is broken, his understanding of the word “forward” flawed.

Harry Maguire of England celebrates after scoring his side’s first goal.
Harry Maguire’s celebration which irked Roy Keane. Photograph: Eddie Keogh/The FA/Getty Images

In reality Kane has achieved something quite rare, reacting with intelligence to his own depleted mobility and finding another way to remain effective. Ageing centre forwards can end up lodged in the centre of the pitch. Kane has found other spaces in which to play. It has been a smart little interlude, but there was evidence here he might be able to recombine the two, to find his point of synthesis. Although, frankly, playing Albania every week would definitely help.

The game was wild early on. Wembley was wreathed in a kind of remembrance mist, the air turned silver as a fine London drizzle caught the roof lights. There were some heavy tackles, including one behind-the-sofa moment from Jordan Pickford. The opening goal came from what felt like a retaliatory foul on Kane. Reece James produced a lovely dipping delivery. Harry Maguire was unmarked. The ball found the middle of his forehead, sent with a lovely meaty thunk back into the far corner.

At which point Maguire did something funny, sticking his fingers in his ears as he slid on his knees, half-changing his mind, then doubling down and doing it some more. What image was Maguire seeing scroll across his peripheral vision, what giant, distended raging face was he picturing in his mind’s eye? A set piece headed goal against Albania. Well done, it’s your job. In the ITV studio Roy Keane would later describe Maguire, who had just scored a goal, as “a disgrace” and “an embarrassment” This is great postmodern fourth-wall banter.

James was sensational in that opening half hour. Jordan Henderson offered a reminder of what a fine, driving midfielder he is, not least with the run and floated cross for Kane’s opening goal. Kane was three yards out (huge tick). He butted the ball into the net. Kane made the third goal for Henderson with a fine piece of centre-forward play, taking the ball with his back to goal, both arms out, holding his man at bay. The ball was eased into Henderson’s path. The jink and finish were expertly done.

After the half-hour Kane got his second, released by a fine break from Raheem Sterling. Kastriot Dermaku, Albania’s No 6, had arrived as a first-half injury substitute. There may have been slower, more cumbersome players on the Wembley turf in recent times. But not many. And none that spring to mind. Here he rumbled across to cover Kane’s run with all the easy grace of an oversized mahogany wardrobe being dragged across a polished wooden floor. Kane, sprightly in this presence, feinted right, then spanked a left-footed shot into the far corner.

Harry Kane heads home England’s second goal.
Harry Kane heads home England’s second goal. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Kane kept going, shooting, then heading just past the far post. Then came that overhead, the ball deflected in off the hapless Dermaku. The hat-trick makes it 44 for Kane in 66 games for England. And really, say what you like, object, if you will, to the opposition, the styling, or whatever else. This is a wonderful record. Kane has more competitive England goals than anyone else. He has a fine tournament record, a knockout game record, a supreme goals to games ratio, two major finals, a Golden Boot.

With the three points here England have all but qualified for Qatar 2022. Five minutes after the final whistle Kane was the last man off the Wembley turf, wearing a training jacket now after his substitution, match ball lodged diligently under his arm. This is a player who knows his worth, who pores over his numbers, who is hugely motivated by cranking up through the all-time lists, seeking the far outer edge of his talent. He remains the figurehead of this hugely successful Southgate era; a story that now has at least one more significant chapter to run.

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