Interim England boss Gareth Southgate declared himself satisfied with his side’s haul of four points from his first two qualifiers in charge despite the Three Lions disappointing in their stalemate with Slovenia.
England were indebted to goalkeeper Joe Hart as they escaped Ljubljana with a point – the first time they had failed to win a qualifying match since a goalless draw with Ukraine in September 2013.
A draw was sufficient to keep England top of Group F, two points clear of second-placed Lithuania and Slovenia, and Southgate, having taken the reins from the wreckage of Sam Allardyce’s shock departure, insists the overall objective of reaching the 2018 World Cup is very much on track.
“We’ve taken over a mess and had to steady the ship, so with the overall objective of qualifying we’ve kept the team on track,” said Southgate.
“We wanted six points and would have liked to have scored more goals in the two games, but the overall objective is to qualify. Maybe that’s a point that will be important towards that, although everybody would see we could have been better.”
Hart, meanwhile, has endured a turbulent period. He was roundly criticised for his performance during England’s defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 and then failed to fit new Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola’s mould of a ball-playing goalkeeper. The 29-year-old was consequently shipped off to Torino on loan, although Southgate believes Hart is now fully rejuvenated.
“We owe our goalkeeper for getting a point,” added Southgate. “He’s at his best when he is calm and composed. He’s aware of that and that’s something we’ve discussed.
“Across this week, his professionalism and his training have been excellent. He was at his best tonight.”
England breathed a huge sigh of relief on 10 minutes as Slovenia frontman Roman Bezjak latched onto a woeful, blind backpass from recalled Tottenham midfielder Eric Dier, only for Hart to come to the Three Lions rescue with a sprawling save.
The danger had not passed and as a ruffled England failed to douse the lingering threat, Atlanta midfielder Jasmin Kurtic crunched a right-footed effort against the post.
Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak had not conceded in his last four matches for club and country and England, whose starting XI had notched just 22 goals between them, barely troubled the Atletico Madrid stopper during an impotent opening period.
Hart was again called upon at the start of the second half; producing a smart save to repel a ricocheted effort from Bostjan Cesar, while seconds later he thwarted Kurtic by superbly clawing his glanced header onto the crossbar and then away from danger.
With England causing their own problems, Fiorentina playmaker Josip Ilicic rifled narrowly past the woodwork as the hour mark approached and then was denied by Hart as captain Jordan Henderson was robbed in possession.
England eventually turned up the heat and full-back Danny Rose lashed wide with his unfavoured right foot after cutting inside from Gary Cahill’s pinpoint pass, while Oblak’s one-handed save curtailed the progress of Jesse Lingard’s goal-bound shot.