Gareth Southgate would not swap Harry Kane for any other goalscorer at the World Cup after the England captain’s hat-trick secured a record-breaking win and progress to the knockout phase.
After digging deep to see off Tunisia at the death of 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 ever at a major tournament and sealed progress to the last 16 with a game to spare as John Stones’ 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 to 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 today, 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 today, but today 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.”
Southgate was largely happy with his side’s display in the Nizhny Novgorod heat against aggressive Panama.
“Before half-time, there were some extreme moments,” Southgate said.
“I am really pleased that we didn’t get involved and come out with just that one yellow.
“It’s just a different type of test that the players have had to deal with.
“In this heat, it would have been easy for the players to lose self-control.”
That solitary booking may end up boosting England’s hopes of topping Group G given fair play is one of the criteria looked at if points, goal difference and goal scored are all the same.
That is the scenario heading into Thursday’s clash with Belgium, who would reportedly rather finish as runners-up.
“We would want to keep momentum and keep progressing as a team,” Southgate added.
“I’ve heard talk of, ‘Is it better to finish first or second?’ I am not sure how we’re going to work all of that out really so let’s just go and enjoy the game again.
“It’s nice that it’s a game where we’re not up to our neck in pressure.
“We have got some decisions to make because the harmony of the group is important to me.”