England manager Gareth Southgate says he would not swap Harry Kane for any other goalscorer at the World Cup after his captain’s hat-trick helped secure a record-breaking win and progress to the knockout phase.
After digging deep to see off Tunisia at the climax to Monday’s Group G opener, the Three Lions secured a win as impressive as it was comprehensive in putting shambolic Panama to the sword in sweltering Nizhny Novgorod.
England’s 6-1 victory was their biggest at a major tournament and sealed progress to the last 16 with a game to spare as John Stones’s brace and a fine Jesse Lingard strike complemented a treble by Kane.
Just the third Englishman to score a hat-trick at the World Cup, it moved Kane onto five goals and the top of the Golden Boot standings.
Asked about Kane’s current level in a question mentioning Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, England manager Southgate said: “Well, clearly the stage to do that is this one. He’s started brilliantly.
“You can dismiss penalties as being easy, but the length of time he had to wait before taking that (first one) and the number of distractions, to then keep focused, start again and refocus tells you a bit about the mental toughness that he’s got.
“Look, he’s there, he’s up at the top. We wouldn’t swap him for anyone in the tournament in terms of number nines.
“You know that when he gets opportunities he’s going to bury them. You sit there very confident in his ability to take chances.
“But as important in that is the way he sacrifices himself for the team in the way he presses, holds the ball up, contributes to the overall game.
“He’s not just a player that stands up front and waits for chances and that’s important within the ethic of the team we’re trying to create.”
Kane went off soon after wrapping up his hat-trick, England’s only goal of a second half that was never likely to get near the five struck before the break.
“It’s strange because I enjoyed the win against Tunisia more because of the tension in it and the fact that you get over the line when you’re really under pressure,” Southgate said. “It was very, very special.
“Just before half-time the game was done [yesterday], so it was a very, very strange feeling watching the second half, just trying to encourage the players to keep professional in the way that they played and be a top team by being ruthless.
“I was pleased the captain got his hat-trick because it meant he had the hump less when I brought him off because I know the importance for him of scoring goals.
“Very strange because I think we probably at times played better the other night than we have done [against Panama], but here we were really ruthless in front of goal.
“A different type of challenge and I know how many people have been watching at home on a Sunday afternoon, so it was lovely that we could give them goals to celebrate.
“I think they can see what we’re trying to do and the way we’re trying to play and that the players are enjoying their football.
“You don’t get many opportunities to play in a game like that for England.”
Kane says he will resist any temptation to rest against Belgium on Thursday as he continues to chase the World Cup golden boot.
Southgate may be tempted to let his prize asset take a breather in Kaliningrad, particularly as second place in the group may offer a simpler knockout route than first, but Kane is keeping his eyes on the prize.
“That’s his decision, I guess, but obviously I want to play,” said the 24-year-old, who has twice finished as the Premier League’s leading marksman.
“I want to continue the form I’m in, but whatever decision the gaffer makes we’ll get behind. There is a bigger picture.
“The most important thing is always winning games, and if my goals help my team win then that’s the perfect situation. There’s a long way to go and a lot of good players just behind me [on the list]. Hopefully I can just continue and take it into Thursday’s game.”
England currently top the standings on the slenderest of margins. With the same number of points as Belgium and an identical number of goals scored and conceded, a solitary yellow card splits the teams on disciplinary grounds.
Kane, though, is not interested in second place and would rather keep the winning feeling intact regardless of the path it leaves.
“It’s important we finish top,” he said.