England boss Gareth Southgate admitted his side are a long way from being considered World Cup challengers after the Three Lions booked their place in next year’s finals with a laboured victory over Slovenia.
Skipper Harry Kane scored a last-gasp clincher – his 11th goal in 22 international appearances – to salvage a degree of credibility for a lacklustre England, who secured top spot in Group F as a consequence.
Southgate can now start planning in earnest for the tournament in Russia – the Football Association last night announced Wembley friendlies against Germany and Brazil in November – although the 47-year-old admits there is plenty of scope for betterment.
“This team has potential but we have a hell of a lot of work to do,” said Southgate.
“We have come off the back of what happened in the last European Championship, a change of coach and a lot of difficulties to deal with through the campaign, but we’re there and now we build and look to where we can improve.
“This is a young team and they’re learning all the time. We know we have got to get better but that’s for tomorrow. Tonight, as a country, we go to the World Cup and that’s fantastic.”
Slovenia threatened first and might have been awarded a penalty after Josip Ilicic went down in the penalty area, seemingly after England goalkeeper Joe Hart had caught his foot.
As for the hosts, seven of England’s last nine goals had been scored or assisted by a Tottenham player so it was no surprise when Kane had their first meaningful, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort.
Kane, who entered the clash in blistering form having netted 13 goals in his last eight matches, drifted inside on 14 minutes but saw his long-range shot comfortably grasped by Slovenia goalkeeper Jan Oblak.
It was a familiar story for England in the remainder of the half as they enjoyed plenty of possession but lacked a cutting edge, although Jordan Henderson and Marcus Rashford, their brightest spark, had attempts turned behind by Oblak.
But for a five-minute period around the hour mark when an impudent, if ill-judged, chip by Rashford while clean through was cleared and a Raheem Sterling shot was blocked by Bostjan Cesar, England’s lack of conviction and urgency continued after the break.
They were indebted to a late double save from Hart to deny substitute Tim Matavz and then Andraz Struna, before a poor throw from Oblak was seized upon by Kyle Walker and his low centre was poked home by Kane in the 94th minute.