Sunday 17 December 2017

Captain Kane passes leadership test

Scotland 2 England 2: Spurs striker justifies Southgate's decision as his late strike denies Scots a famous victory

England captain Harry Kane scores a late equaliser against Scotland at Hampden Park last night. Photo: Reuters
England captain Harry Kane scores a late equaliser against Scotland at Hampden Park last night. Photo: Reuters

Daniel Taylor at Hampden Park

The only word to describe it is bedlam. It was certainly difficult to make sense of that extraordinary finale other than to say that, ultimately, Harry Kane showed everyone right at the end why Gareth Southgate had made him England captain for the day. It was the 93rd minute when he denied Scotland their 'football, bloody hell' moment and, in the process, he might have secured the armband on a longer basis.

That, however, tells only part of the story bearing in mind England had seemed to be coasting towards a relatively straightforward 1-0 win, courtesy of a goal from substitute Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, before all that late drama when Leigh Griffiths left the home nation on the point of rare euphoria. The two free-kicks Griffiths expertly placed beyond Joe Hart came in the 87th and 89th minutes and it is doubtful Hampden has ever made more noise than when the second one curled into the England net.

Scotland's Leigh Griffiths celebrates scoring their second goal. Photo: Reuters
Scotland's Leigh Griffiths celebrates scoring their second goal. Photo: Reuters

Before this game, the Scottish Football Association had announced a competition to find the greatest goal in the team's history. Both of these strikes could make the shortlist, and at that stage it seemed as though Scotland might inflict England's first defeat in a qualifying fixture since October 2009. Kane, though, had other ideas and it was a remarkably cool finish in the circumstances.

England can be frustrated and overjoyed while, for Scotland, it was an agonising way to finish a game when they gave everything to match the team on top of Group F.

To put it in context, when Gordon Strachan's team came out in the early-evening sunshine their starting line-up featured three players from teams that will begin next season in England's second tier and a centre-half, Charlie Mulgrew, who had just been relegated to League One with Blackburn Rovers.

If there was an imbalance of talent, however, Scotland also seemed utterly determined to make up for it in other ways. They were quick to the ball, strong in the tackle and played with a spirit that seemed to catch England by surprise during the opening exchanges.

Harry Kane celebrates scoring with teammates. Photo: Reuters
Harry Kane celebrates scoring with teammates. Photo: Reuters

The home side could never be accused of lacking effort. They also had a captain, Scott Brown, who quickly gave the impression that whatever England's players encountered during a night away with the Royal Marines last weekend was going to be chicken-feed compared to 90 minutes in his company. Very quickly, in fact. Brown's challenge on Dele Alli for the first booking of the game - a reducer, to use the old-fashioned parlance - came inside the opening three minutes.

The crowd cheered his combativeness but there was nothing clever about going into the referee's notebook that early into such a key assignment and it merely meant Brown had to restrain himself for the remainder of the match. The Celtic midfielder was fortunate in the extreme, shortly after his team had gone behind, that another foul on Alli did not end up being his final act.

England took a while to settle but when the first half reached its 20-minute mark it started to become clear which side was filled with players from the higher end of the Premier League. Kane could not apply a decisive finish with two chances in quick succession and when a third one arrived shortly before the half-hour, after Craig Gordon had charged out of his penalty area to head the ball away, the striker cleared the goalkeeper with his follow-up shot only for Kieran Tierney to save Scotland with a goal-line clearance.

By that stage England had cleared their heads of any early uncertainty and they had enough of the ball in promising positions that, by half-time, Southgate was entitled to be frustrated there were only sporadic occasions when they managed to get behind Scotland's often congested defence.

All the same, these were encouraging moments for England. Adam Lallana's international career might have been a slow-burner but this was another occasion when he was one of their better players. Marcus Rashford can still be raw, still refining his decision-making, but he was a difficult opponent in other ways and Alli, operating in the No 10 role, was prominently involved.

Jake Livermore, a surprise choice in England's midfield, can also feel he justified his selection alongside Eric Dier. Livermore did not venture forward too often but he did have one first-half shot that troubled Gordon and five minutes after the interval he had another go. This time, his low, diagonal effort skimmed off Kane, entirely changing the direction of the ball and striking the bottom of the post.

Scotland's defensive structure was sound but, in an attacking sense, they had so little momentum in the final third of the pitch that on one of their breakaways their centre-forward, Griffiths, resorted to a penalty-box dive in the forlorn hope that the Italian referee might be deceived into thinking Kyle Walker had caused the fall.

The tactic did not work but it was the start of a brief flurry of attacking play from the home team and Andrew Robertson should probably have done better with the most inviting chance of that period. Robertson took an extra touch when it might have been better to let fly, first time, with his left foot and he ended up firing over.

Oxlade-Chamberlain had been on the pitch only five minutes when he turned past Brown and headed horizontally across the penalty area before opening the scoring with a rising left-foot shot.

Yet Hart is not the goalkeeper he once was and Griffiths took advantage with one 25-yard free-kick into one corner of the England goal and then, incredibly, with another, from a similar distance, into the other side.

England looked beaten but, to their credit, it was an onslaught of the Scottish goal in stoppage-time. Dier had a free-kick palmed out by Gordon but, finally, substitute Raheem Sterling picked out Kane. England needed their captain and he stepped up.


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