Harry Kane’s injury-time winner secured England’s qualification for next summer’s World Cup with victory against Slovenia – but this was a display designed to dampen any sense of expectation.
Kane, England captain for the night, bundled in Kyle Walker’s cross for his 11th goal in 22 international appearances to finally break down Slovenia’s resistance as they looked likely to hold out for a point.
It meant manager Gareth Southgate can now start planning in earnest for Russia but could not cover up the cracks in an England performance that was lifeless, uninspired and mediocre.
Marcus Rashford and Raheem Sterling almost broke the deadlock before Kane made his breakthrough, the hosts were also grateful to much-criticised keeper Joe Hart for some crucial interventions.
England and Southgate have achieved their goal. It was not, however, achieved in a manner that will start alarm bells ringing for any future World Cup opposition.
Elsewhere in the group, Scotland kept their qualifying hopes alive in dramatic fashion as a late Martin Skrtel own goal gave them victory over 10-man Slovakia at Hampden Park.
England through but no celebrations
England’s qualification for Russia was confirmed by that late strike from Kane but Wembley was hardly awash with joyous scenes at the final whistle.
And that was because, for the large part, this was a desperately poor England performance as they struggled to find a way through a well-drilled Slovenia.
England’s poor performance drew mockery and sarcasm from some sections of a dissatisfied Wembley crowd, clearly unimpressed by what they were witnessing.
Southgate said he was aware of the crowd’s discontent and the unhappy mood of England’s supporters meant there was an absence of the air of celebration that normally accompanies World Cup qualification.
The scale of the excitement – or lack of it – on offer was illustrated by the fact many England’s fans spent most of the second half amusing themselves by hurling paper aeroplanes at each other.
It was also an atmosphere tempered by the reality of England’s current standing apart from the elite of the international game.
England carry a forward threat in the shape of Kane and Rashford, who will be supplemented by Dele Alli when he is free from suspension, but the glaring lack of creativity elsewhere – especially in central midfield – must represent a real concern for Southgate.
Southgate has achieved phase one of the task presented to him when he succeeded Sam Allardyce, but on this evidence England will not travel to Russia accompanied by any serious weight of expectation.
Southgate’s England strictly B-list
England, as usual, have come through qualifying in relative comfort – but they have made very heavy weather of completing the job at some stages of this campaign.
The 4-0 victory margin in Malta was hugely flattering – helped by three goals in the closing minutes against exhausted opponents – and England came from behind to beat Slovakia at Wembley.
And this was a dreadful, lifeless slog that confirmed England’s strictly ‘B-list’ status in international football’s pecking order.
The team must make a huge leap from the workmanlike and largely uninspired efforts of this campaign if they are to make even a single bead of sweat break out on the brows of any potential opponents in Russia.
And those countries who travel with serious hope of winning the World Cup will certainly have no fears should they be confronted by this England side.
How many more chances for Oxlade-Chamberlain?
Southgate’s selection of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in Alli’s absence was a real show of faith in Liverpool’s £35m signing from Arsenal – and totally at odds with his poor form this season.
Sadly for Oxlade-Chamberlain, he was unable to repay England’s manager and it was no surprise when he was replaced by Jesse Lingard after 64 minutes.
There was no shortage of effort from the 24-year-old but he looked a player short on confidence and self-belief, still battling to come anywhere near fulfilling the promise he showed after he burst on the England scene as a teenager.
Southgate clearly has great belief in the midfielder, also starting him in the recent qualifiers in Malta and at home to Slovakia – but his struggles have been reflected in his failure to complete both of those games, as well as this meeting with Slovenia.
Oxlade-Chamberlain is now reaching a pivotal stage of his career where he has to start delivering for club and country. He showed no signs of making that transition at Wembley on Thursday.
Harry Kane of England was declared Man of the match