England and Argentina closed in on World Cup spots defeating their respective opponents in contrasting styles in the qualifiers on Friday.
At Wembley in London, England captain Harry Kane plundered a hat-trick before half-time in a 5-0 hammering of Albania to all but guarantee his side’s spot at the quadrennial event to be held in Qatar in November next year.
In Montevideo, Argentina beat Uruguay 1-0, despite the absence of Lionel Messi for most of the match as he recovers from a left knee injury.
Angel Di Maria scored the only goal in the seventh minute with a powerful left-footed shot from the right corner of the penalty box. Uruguay goalkeeper Fernando Muslera didn’t get close to stopping the ball.
Two draws in their last three Group I matches for Gareth Southgate’s team left the door ajar for Poland in the qualifying race, but Kane slammed it shut in memorable fashion as he moved level in fourth place on England’s all-time scoring list.
England defender Harry Maguire settled any early nerves with a ninth-minute headed opener before Kane’s spree began when he also headed in from close range after 18 minutes.
With Albania in disarray, Jordan Henderson weaved through to make it 3-0 before Kane powered in his second from a tight angle and then completed his fourth England hat-trick in stunning fashion on the stroke of halftime.
It moved him level on 44 England goals with former Tottenham Hotspur great Jimmy Greaves.
Kane has also now scored 39 competitive goals for his country, breaking Wayne Rooney’s record of 37.
“The first half was an incredible performance. The pressure was on and we needed a result,” Kane, who has scored 12 goals for England this calendar year, said.
“Maybe we had a point to prove and we came out on fire.” With one match remaining England have 23 points to Poland’s 20 and a better goal difference ahead of the formality of a final trip to group whipping boys San Marino on Monday when a point will confirm their place at the 2022 finals.
Argentina were less dominant in comparison with recent qualifying matches. Messi only came on in the middle of the second half but did not make an impact. The absence of defensive midfielder Leandro Paredes, who has a hip injury, also affected the Copa America champions.
“Winning today (Friday) was a gigantic step. We deserve this, we have worked for this,” Argentina goalkeeper Emiliano Martinez said. “They needed points, playing here was hard. This Argentina have amazing courage, and when we don’t play well we have to win anyway.”
“Sometimes you just have to win and we managed that,” Argentine coach Lionel Scaloni said. “Not playing well, certainly, but it still counts.”
“They put pressure on us, they have experienced players, but we were lucky to be able to maintain our unbeaten run and get all three points,” defender Nicolas Otamendi said.
“We know how difficult it is to play here and we knew that they were under a lot of pressure to win. We had to be strong when the game got complicated but we were able to keep a clean sheet.”