England striker Harry Kane struck a 94th minute winner as the Three Lions edged Slovenia 1-0 in a hard-fought game at Wembley to confirm their berth for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in dramatic fashion.
On a day when Jan Oblak and the Slovenian defence were stubbornly defiant, it was apt that Kane would somehow find a way past to confirm England’ spot in the quadrennial showpiece event next year.
Captain for the night, Kane slid in to guide home Kyle Walker’s inviting cross to break Slovenian hearts at the death.
Gareth Southgate had sent the Three Lions out in a 4-2-3-1 formation with Joe Hart retaining his place in goal, playing behind a back-four of Ryan Bertrand, Gary Cahill, John Stones and Kyle Walker.
Jordan Henderson and Eric Dier started in the midfield-pivot, with Marcus Rashford and Alex Oxlade Chamberlain the preferred wingers for the night. The in-form Raheem Sterling played just behind Kane and the Manchester City man was a constant menace at Wembley.
Slovenia were third in their qualifying group going into Thursday’s tie and knew nothing less than a draw would keep their slim chances of booking their berth to Russia alive.
England, on the other hand, knew a win would confirm their spot and while a draw or loss might still be enough, a tricky trip to Lithuania on Sunday awaited them and the Englishmen were keen to confirm their spot in front of their own fans.
And the hosts, unsurprisingly, monopolised possession from the off. Kane had the first chance of the night, testing Oblak from distance in the 13th minute but the Atletico Madrid keeper was up to the task.
Rashford, who like Kane has been in fine fettle for his club, sent in an inviting cross which just eluded Gary Cahill’s outstretched boot and Oblak gratefully gathered.
England kept coming at Slovenia but any hopes of an early goal were stymied as the Balkan nation defended resolutely, opting to hit their illustrious opponents on the counter.
Slovenian winger Roman Bezjak missed a volley inside the box after a rare foray into the England half, much to the relief of the home crowd.
Jordan Henderson came close to breaking the deadlock with a low shot that Oblak was forced to tip around the post as the Three Lions amped up the pressure but the visitors held firm despite a few close shaves from set-pieces to go into the interval with the score reading 0-0.
Oxlade-Chamberlain, who has been dreadful since his move to Liverpool from Arsenal, was virtually invisible on the night and Jesse Lingard replaced him in the 64th-minute as Southgate urged his wards to find a winner.
England got a golden chance within seconds of Lingard’s introduction when the ball fell kindly to Sterling inside the Slovenian box but the pacy winger could not finish with his weaker foot, much to the disbelief of his teammates.
Kane would go close next with a snapshot with his left foot, but the effort went just wide of Oblak’s post.
In the end, the Tottenham Hotspur striker was not to be denied as he teamed up with former club mate Kyle Walker to find a winner to get the Wembley crowd roaring in unison.
Walker, who had skied a free-kick in the first-half, made amends for his error by sending in a low cross that confused Oblak and his defence, allowing Kane to slide in and get the slightest of touches.
With the result, England are topping the group with 23 points from nine game and mathematically cannot be overhauled as their is just one game left and second-placed Scotland are six points behind.
The Scots edged Slovakia 1-0 to move up in the table on Thursday and travel to Slovenia on Sunday in a must-win game. For Slovakia, who are third with 15 points, host minnows Malta on the same day and will be expected to win their game.