Football is never "an easy game" and Harry Kane should have known better.

Football is a game that takes even the most level-headed through the emotional wringer and Harry Kane can be forgiven.

Take your pick, but it was not so much tempting fate as giving fate a firm kick in the nethers when Kane suggested he was on easy street on this very same weekend last year.

Of course, fate was bound to kick back, but what a vengeance it has taken.

Spurs sat giddily on top of the Premier League after a 2-0 north London derby win over Arsenal on December 6, 2020. It was their first game back in front of fans, albeit just 2,000 of them, at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium since the pandemic struck in March.

Talk was of a sustained title tilt, Jose Mourinho had a glint back in his eye and seemed to have his magic touch back, and the Harry Kane and Son Heung-min combination was poised to break all records.

"They are working like animals, with all due respect to animals, I love animals," Mourinho said of his front two.

A year on, so much has changed.

What happened that day

The basics are these: Kane created a glorious 13th-minute opener with a pass through for Son, the finish a delight. England captain Kane netted a similarly impressive second on the stroke of half-time following a pass from Son. Arsenal had almost 70 per cent of possession but could not make it count.

Kane became the all-time leading scorer in derbies between the teams, with his 11th goal against Arsenal taking him past Emmanuel Adebayor and Bobby Smith in the history of the rivalry. The goal was the 250th of his career at club and international level, with 202 of those having come for Spurs, 32 for England, nine for Millwall, five for Leyton Orient and two for Leicester City.

Spurs could celebrate having won consecutive derbies against Arsenal for just the third time in the Premier League, after a 1992-93 season double and wins in April and November of 2010.

They were on a high, and the fanfare was loudest about the Kane and Son combination.

Their spectacular start to the 2020-21 season had seen them register an astonishing 11 direct combinations for goals – where one of the pairing has the assist and the other scores – in the opening 11 games of the season. That took them to 31 goal combinations in total during their time together at Spurs, just five short of the Premier League era record, held by Chelsea greats Didier Drogba and Frank Lampard. They had overtaken Arsenal's Thierry Henry and Robert Pires (29), Manchester City's David Silva and Sergio Aguero (29) and Tottenham's own Teddy Sheringham and Darren Anderton (27).

Kane's assist was his 10th of the season, and no player has ever reached double figures for Premier League assists in fewer games from the start of a Premier League season. The only player to match Kane in that regard has been Mesut Ozil for Arsenal in the 2015-16 season.

These were dizzying heights and Kane, speaking on Sky Sports, said of his Son alliance: "When I'm passing him through and he's cutting inside and whipping them into the top bins it is an easy game for me."

What could possibly go wrong?

Between them, Kane and Son were making Mourinho's job look easy. A haul of 24 points from 11 games meant Spurs led Liverpool on goal difference. They had taken seven points from their previous three games: against Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal.

In January, the deadly double act reached 13 direct combinations for the season when Kane crossed for Son to put Spurs 2-0 up during a 3-0 win against Leeds, and that matched a Premier League record set by Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton in Blackburn Rovers' 1994-95 title-winning campaign.

The record fell outright in March when Son crossed for Kane to put the seal on a 4-1 home win over Crystal Palace.

Since then? Just two more direct combinations for goals have been recorded by the pair. The once red-hot connection between Kane and Son has gone cold.

Mourinho was sacked in April and Tottenham plodded in seventh, the rot having set in with a grim toll of seven defeats in the 13 league games that followed the victory over Arsenal.

They spluttered through the opening stages of the 2021-22 campaign too, with Mourinho's supposedly permanent successor Nuno Espirito Santo shown the door after only 17 games and four months at the helm. A 3-1 defeat to Arsenal hardly helped his cause.

It has taken the appointment of Antonio Conte, on a reported £20million-a-year deal, to right the good ship Spurs, with back-to-back wins over Leeds United and Brentford lifting the team to sixth going into the weekend, surprisingly within touching distance of West Ham in fourth.

So what now? Can Conte revive former glories?

Kane and Son are edging closer to that Lampard and Drogba record, but their progress towards the target has been more sloth-like than swashbuckling.

They have 35 direct goal combinations now (Son to Kane 18 times, Kane to Son 17 times), and there remain flickers of life in that partnership.

It was Kane's probing forward pass that freed up a sprinting Sergio Reguilon to centre for Son to slot Spurs' second goal in the 2-0 win over Brentford on Thursday. That was Son's 75th Premier League goal.

Since the table-topping delirium after the Arsenal game last season, Son has managed 12 goals and eight assists in 38 Premier League games, while Kane has 16 goals and five assists in 36 appearances in the top flight.

These are modest totals by their standards, given that in Son's previous 38 Premier League games, up to and including that December 2020 derby, he managed 19 goals and 13 assists, while Kane's previous 36 league matches saw him grab 23 goals and 12 assists.

Son is outperforming his expected goals (xG) in the Premier League this season, scoring five goals from an xG score of 3.8, which is a good sign, but Kane's solitary strike from an xG of 3.1 must worry those with affections towards Spurs.

Kane unable? That's not what the numbers say

Kane has had an enigmatic 2021 by any standards, with doubts cast over his long-term commitment to Tottenham at one point as he looked eager to join Pep Guardiola at Manchester City. He has more recently stressed how "excited" he is about the chance to work under Conte, a proven winner as a manager.

With England, the goals have certainly flowed for Kane this year, a team-record 16 taking him to 48 in his international career, the same number as Gary Lineker achieved.

This season alone he has scored 10 in World Cup qualifiers for England, while with Spurs in 2021-22 he has hit six goals in the Conference League, including qualifying games for that third-tier UEFA competition, one in the EFL Cup and only one in the Premier League, against bottom-of-the-table Newcastle United.

Conte said in the wake of the win over Brentford: "I'm very pleased with the way that he's playing. I know the striker wants to score but we want to give him many chances to score. I think we're on the right path to do this type of situation."

Across the whole of 2021, taking all competitions and commitments into account, Kane has scored 41 goals at one every 123 minutes, which shows that he still knows the way to goal, even if there is unusually no sign of him on this campaign's Premier League top scorers' list.

Spurs' Italian boss may be capable of digging into the root cause of Kane's slump at club level, but it may take forensic examination and soul-searching to reach the eureka moment.

Or perhaps it will take a home game against lowly Norwich City. That is next on the agenda for Tottenham, this Sunday, and Kane has scored five goals in three Premier League games against Norwich, netting a penalty in all three matches.

No player in Premier League history has scored a penalty in four consecutive appearances against a specific opponent before. A penalty might be considered a cheap way for Kane to get back to scoring ways with his club, but Conte is looking for upticks in whatever form they might come.

It has been a rough old year for the Kane-Son combination, a long time since the "easy game" remark.

Perhaps the pressure of the Lampard and Drogba record is weighing heavily. Or just maybe it is high time they took it upon themselves to smash through the glass ceiling and consign the narrative of these last 12 months to history.

New Tottenham head coach Antonio Conte reassured he is "very pleased" with Harry Kane despite the striker's lean spell of scoring form.

Spurs cruised to a 2-0 win over Brentford in the first ever top-flight meeting between the sides on Thursday, though Kane could not get on the scoresheet and has just one Premier League goal to his name so far this season.

The England international did, however, record a game-high three key passes in a creative performance that was typified by his usual preference to drop deep and look to link-up play.

As Conte prepares to host Norwich City, who the Italian has never faced before in the league, he once again gave his backing for goal-shy Kane.

"First of all, I'm sure Harry is happy if we win and he doesn't score," Conte said of Kane, who has scored five goals in three top-flight matches against the Canaries.

"Tottenham is the first thought for us and Harry. As I said yesterday, Harry played a very good game, he was in the situation that we scored and he had a good chance to score.

"It is important to have chances to score and we're improving a lot in this aspect. I'm sure Harry is going to score many goals.

"I'm sure he’s going to have a good performance in the same way he had against Brentford against every team we play.

"I'm very pleased with the way that he's playing. I know the striker wants to score but we want to give him many chances to score. I think we're on the right path to do this type of situation." Conte has won both of his opening home games in the league – only Ryan Mason and Harry Redknapp have started with three wins in the club's Premier League history.

Despite only being in charge for a short period, Conte has partly resolved some of Spurs' issues and one of his next tasks will be to sort a new contract with skipper Hugo Lloris, whose deal runs out at the end of the season.

"Yeah but I've just arrived," he responded when asked about negotiations with Lloris. "Only one month. At this moment, for sure, we have many situations to solve.

"Hugo is the captain of this team, captain of France and we're talking about a top goalkeeper. He's very focused now. He knows very well now we're trying to do our best.

"Me as a coach, Hugo as goalkeeper and every player has to perform at a high level, but for sure we'll have time to speak about him and I consider him an important player for his experience.

"He's a good goalkeeper first of all and has showed great commitment to the club over a number of years."

Neymar, Harry Kane and Erling Haaland are among the most notable players to have missed out on the top 10 of the Ballon d'Or.

The first 20 names from the 30-man shortlist have been announced, with Haaland just failing to break in at 11th, while Neymar is 16th and Harry Kane is down in 23rd.

Chelsea striker Romelu Lukaku, who led Inter to their first Serie A title in 10 years last season, is just behind Haaland in 12th, while Manchester United's Bruno Fernandes did not make the top 20, finishing joint-21st in the voting.

Of players from Europe's top five leagues, only Bayern Munich centre-forward and Ballon d'Or favourite Robert Lewandowski scored more goals in all competitions than Haaland's 38, which the Norway forward netted at a rapid rate of one every 87.66 minutes.

While the Borussia Dortmund sensation, who scored his 50th Bundesliga goal in as many games on Saturday, can count himself unlucky not to feature higher up on the list, the same cannot be said for Paris Saint-Germain star Neymar.

The Brazil forward, who finished third in 2015 and 2017, had an underwhelming, injury hit year in which he scored just 11 goals and recorded eight assists for PSG across all competitions, although he did reach the Copa America final with Brazil, losing out to club team-mate Lionel Messi.

Kane won the Premier League golden boot award in 2020-21, and topped the assist charts before helping England to a Euro 2020 final.

However, Tottenham finished seventh in the Premier League and the England captain - who had a prospective move to Manchester City break down - has only a solitary top-flight strike to his name this term.

Lukaku recorded the same tally as Kane, but did help Inter to a first Serie A title in 10 years, while Fernandes, who split 21st place with Inter's Lautaro Martinez, hit one less, but did also record 17 assists for United.

Manchester City's Ruben Dias, Phil Foden, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling were placed joint-26th, 25th, 20th and 15th respectively, while 2018 Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric was 29th alongside Cesar Azpilicueta.

The Chelsea captain's team-mate Mason Mount was 19th, with Luis Suarez 17th, the Uruguay forward having played a pivotal role in Atletico Madrid's LaLiga success last term.

Italy defenders Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini came 14th and 13th, with compatriot Nicolo Barella sharing 26th place with Dias and Villarreal's Gerard Moreno.

Barcelona youngster Pedri enjoyed a wonderful year, and was ranked at 24th.

The top 10 players remaining are: Lionel Messi, Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo, Mohamed Salah, Karim Benzema, Kevin De Bruyne, Gianluigi Donnarumma, Jorginho, N'Golo Kante and Kylian Mbappe.

Manchester City's forward pursuit has dominated headlines.

Since Sergio Aguero left for Barcelona, Pep Guardiola's champions have been targeting a replacement.

Karim Benzema could reportedly fill the void.

 

TOP STORY – BENZEMA TO CITY?

Manchester City want to sign Real Madrid star Karim Benzema, according to El Nacional.

Premier League champions City are desperate to bolster their attack, having missed out on Tottenham's Harry Kane following the departure of Sergio Aguero at the start of the season.

Borussia Dortmund sensation Erling Haaland and Fiorentina forward Dusan Vlahovic have been linked, but Benzema – out of contract in 2023 – has emerged as an option.

 

ROUND-UP

- Nicolo Schira claims Bayern Munich are set to battle Chelsea for Federico Chiesa. The Italy international is on loan at Juventus from Fiorentina and set to join the Bianconeri permanently at the end of the season. However, if Juve fail to qualify for the Champions League, rivals could pounce.

Barcelona are eyeing a move for Manchester United forward Anthony Martial, per Mundo Deportivo. Martial has found game time hard to come by at Old Trafford.

- SuperDerpote claims Madrid midfielder Luka Modric would be open to leaving for City. Modric is out of contract at the end of the season. It comes after Marca said Los Blancos are not interested in United star and soon-to-be free agent Paul Pogba.

Marcelo Brozovic is set to re-sign with Serie A champions Inter, according to Tuttosport. Brozovic has been linked with United, Barca and PSG.

Antonio Conte reiterated "it will take time to bring Tottenham back" following Spurs' shock 2-1 loss to Slovenian minnows Mura in the Europa Conference League.

Harry Kane looked to have salvaged a point for Tottenham by cancelling out Tommy Horvat's opener at Fazanerija, but Amadej Marosa scored a dramatic winner with the final kick on Thursday.

Spurs made nine changes from their 2-1 Premier League win over Leeds United last weekend and played more than an hour with 10 men following Ryan Sessegnon's dismissal.

But the defeat – Tottenham's first under head coach Conte since his appointment earlier this month – will still go down as one of the worst in their European history against a side with a UEFA coefficient ranking of 341.

Spurs can now no longer finish top of Group G, meaning a two-legged play-off awaits in February should they first match Vitesse's result in the final round of group fixtures in a fortnight.

Conte, who has a record of two wins, a draw and a defeat from his four games since replacing Nuno Espirito Santo, accepted an improvement is required in every department ahead of hosting Rennes.

"This is a bad loss for us. The performance was poor," the former Inter boss said. "We know we have a lot of work ahead of us. This is a difficult moment for us. 

"We need patience to improve, to be good again. We were poor not only technically and tactically but also mentally. It will take time to bring Tottenham back.

"I don't take this loss personally. I accepted this challenge to improve and build Tottenham to a better level. But it will take time. 

"I want to thank our supporters for their support. We will analyse the game and I will talk to the players then."

Tottenham are seventh in the Premier League with 12 matches played, four points adrift of the top four, and are back in action against Burnley on Sunday.

"I think this team is very young but at the same time we have to work and improve because the details move the final result," Serie A-winning coach Conte added.

"I did not like what happened tonight, the performance. I must be honest and tell you that after three and a half weeks, I am starting to understand the situation. I can tell you that the situation is not simple.

"It is not simple because in this moment because for sure the level of Tottenham is not so high. There is an important gap to the top teams in England. Of this we must not be scared. 

"I am here to work, here to improve the situation. I know we have to work hard but we have also to improve the quality of the situation, because if we want to be competitive."

Kane, one of two players to retain his place from the Leeds game, was on target for Spurs but otherwise looked off the pace – as did the rest of his team-mates.

"We started poorly, conceded an early goal and were left with ten men," said Kane, who has scored eight goals in his last four outings for club and country.

"In the second half we put on the pressure, scored but then let them get a goal in the last second. We're disappointed, we're angry and we have to learn from this."

Tottenham's Europa Conference League hopes hang in the balance after they suffered a humiliating 2-1 defeat against Mura.

Amadej Marosa scored a dramatic stoppage-time winner as 10-man Spurs were beaten for the first time under Antonio Conte.

Prior to Marosa's heroics, the Group G contest had appeared to be heading for a stalemate with Harry Kane cancelling out Tomi Horvat's first-half strike at Fazanerija.

The visitors, who were a man light for over an hour in Slovenia after Ryan Sessegnon was sent off for two bookable offences, now need to beat Rennes in two weeks' time to guarantee progress into the knockout stages.

Manchester United's managerial post is vacant after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was sacked on Sunday.

Solskjaer had led United since December 2018 but failed to win a trophy, finishing runners-up in last season's Premier League and Europa League.

The lean spell has United desperate to return to their former glories with their next managerial appointment.

 

TOP STORY – ZIDANE NOT KEEN ON MAN UTD JOB

World Cup winner and ex-Real Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane is not interested in the vacant Manchester United job, reports BBC Sport.

Zidane left Madrid in May after failing to win LaLiga and has been linked with a host of roles since.

United have approached the 49-year-old about their vacant post but he is not interested in the position at this point.

 ROUND-UP

- Fichajes claims that reported United target Mauricio Pochettino would put Tottenham's Harry Kane at the top of his wishlist if he got the Red Devils job. The current Paris Saint-Germain boss is among those linked with the vacant post. The Telegraph claims that Pochettino is open to moving to Old Trafford at the end of this season.

- Ajax boss Erik ten Hag is United's second choice behind Pochettino reports Sky Sports, while The Sun claims the Red Devils have already approached Leicester City's Brendan Rodgers.

- Sport claims that new Barcelona boss Xavi wants to sign Al-Sadd's Algeria international striker Baghdad Bounedjah. Xavi coached Al-Sadd until taking over at Barca earlier this month.

- Tottenham may make a move for Roma midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo who is unhappy at the club, claims Calciomercato.

- Fichajes reports that Real Madrid have an interest in Mason Mount, who is currently in talks with Chelsea on a new deal. Manchester City and Bayern Munich are also interested in Mount's services.

The 2022 World Cup is now just 12 months away, with qualifying entering its closing stages following a series of crunch November clashes.

Difficulties still await Italy and Portugal – the past two European champions – in the play-offs, but most of the other big names are well on their way if they have not already confirmed their place in Qatar.

So, how are the expected contenders shaping up? Stats Perform investigates.

Argentina

Having finally ended his long wait for a senior international honour at this year's Copa America, Qatar looks like Lionel Messi's last realistic chance to guide Argentina to World Cup glory. They last triumphed in 1986, in the days of Diego Maradona.

But the brilliant Barcelona form that has been the bedrock of Messi's outstanding career is no more. Since clinching the Copa, the forward has left Camp Nou for Paris Saint-Germain and played just 595 minutes across eight games at club level, scoring three goals and assisting none. Heading into this weekend, he had yet to net in Ligue 1.

At odds with the rest of his career, Messi has briefly become one of those players who performs better for country than for club, scoring four goals in seven games for Argentina in the same period, even allowing for the minutes spent regaining fitness in November. But the national team must be concerned Messi's unconvincing displays and shaky recent fitness record hint at a decline that could continue for another year before he gets an opportunity to lead a global title charge.

Although Argentina undoubtedly have other highly talented players – Messi was one of four to make the Team of the Tournament as they become South American champions – it is tough to imagine a successful Albiceleste side without the great number 10 at the heart of it.

 

Belgium

Roberto Martinez's Belgium remain the world's top-ranked team, but it feels like their window for a first major title might now have passed.

Martinez took charge after Euro 2016, where a stacked squad lost to Wales in the last eight, yet he has found a glass ceiling, finishing third at the 2018 World Cup and fourth at the 2020-21 Nations League either side of another quarter-final exit at Euro 2020. Since a disappointing performance at the Nations League Finals, Martinez has been linked to a host of club roles – albeit he is expected to stay put until Qatar.

Although Belgium's 'Golden Generation' have maintained their position at the top of the game despite an ageing defence, there are worrying signs their key attacking players could also be on the wane.

Through a combination of injuries and poor form, Eden Hazard has not looked the same player since he left Chelsea for Real Madrid. Kevin De Bruyne, also beset by fitness issues and below-par outings of late, will hope not to follow the same path. Both he and Romelu Lukaku must still be at their peak to give the Red Devils a chance.

Brazil

Brazil were outclassed by Belgium in the quarter-finals in Russia but have lost just three matches since then. One of those was in this year's Copa final against Argentina, although the Selecao also won the competition in 2019.

Unlike previous Brazil teams, Tite's side are built on the strength of their defensive record. They have kept 28 clean sheets since the 2018 World Cup, conceding just 16 times in 42 games, with 11 shutouts in 2021 alone.

However, that solidity comes at a price. Brazil are scoring at a relatively unspectacular rate of 2.0 goals per game, including netting only two in their three Copa knockout games in July and just one across two November qualifiers.

Neymar will have a key role in producing those timely moments of magic and should not be short of motivation heading to Qatar, having suggested this will be his last World Cup. The forward has excelled on the world stage before without taking Brazil all the way.

England

As so often, England have qualified with relative ease, benefiting from a kind draw, but will not face a true test until the tournament comes around.

That means a wait to see if Gareth Southgate can make the necessary tweaks to turn the Three Lions from nearly men into champions, with the midfield a key area of focus having ceded 65.4 per cent of the possession to Italy in the Euro 2020 final, 53.2 per cent to the Netherlands in the 2018-19 Nations League semi-finals and 55.5 per cent to Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semis. The continued development of Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham should encourage optimism.

But England also find themselves in a position, like Argentina, where the performances of their talismanic captain are suddenly a concern – at least at club level.

Harry Kane has so far this season used the international breaks as sweet relief, quickly closing on Wayne Rooney's record goals tally by scoring in 15 consecutive qualifiers up to September and notching seven in November alone, but there is a break now before March's fixtures and the forward simply must rediscover some sort of form for Tottenham and add to his single Premier League goal in order to return to the England fold in good nick.

 

France

Welcoming Karim Benzema back into a frightening front line, France appear to have an even more impressive line-up than at the previous World Cup, where they emerged as champions.

Benzema has already directly combined for five goals with Kylian Mbappe and one with Antoine Griezmann, who has in turn linked up once with Mbappe. The trio netted nine of France's 10 goals this month, while Mbappe had assists for each of Benzema's strikes at the Nations League Finals as both players scored in both matches and Les Bleus twice came from behind to take the title.

Yet those prior deficits and the six goals conceded at the Euros hinted at the weaknesses in this France side, as Didier Deschamps is still working on his new 3-4-1-2 formation.

The composition of the midfield in that team is crucial, and N'Golo Kante was missing against Belgium and Spain before Paul Pogba suffered an injury prior to the November fixtures. France have no shortage of quality but may not head to Qatar as the most settled unit.

Germany

It was clear Joachim Low's Germany tenure was reaching its natural conclusion before he announced his departure plans in March. That the team followed up a group-stage exit at the World Cup by stumbling through their pool at the Euros before exiting to England only further illustrated that this was the right decision.

But Germany know all about recovering quickly from such setbacks; they seemed to reach rock bottom at Euro 2000 and were in the World Cup final two years later.

Now Hansi Flick, having set Bayern Munich back on course, is excelling again with the national team, becoming the first Germany coach to win his first six matches in charge – a sequence that now stands at seven and counting. The team's last longer winning run ended at 12 games in 1980.

Germany were the most aggressive pressing side in Europe during qualifying, this despite naming their oldest XI in more than 21 years in a recent qualifier against Liechtenstein. Striking this same balance between energy and experience will be key in Qatar.

Spain

Spain have come a long way since the last World Cup, where they appeared to be in crisis from start to finish, eventually exiting to hosts Russia on penalties.

Luis Enrique's subsequent work across two spells has made them contenders again, reaching the last four at the Euros – only to again fall foul of a shoot-out – and briefly leading France in the Nations League final. The emergence of Ansu Fati, Pedri and Gavi over the course of these campaigns provides a major cause for long-term optimism, too.

However, injury issues have kept that trio from ever featuring together for their country; in fact, Fati, Pedri and Gavi are yet to play a single minute together for Barcelona.

They were three of 39 players to appear for Spain in qualifying, showing the depth of talent at Luis Enrique's disposal. Within that group, however, there is not a prolific goalscorer – a major concern with 12 months to go.

Antonio Conte wants Harry Kane to reproduce his "world-class" England form in a Tottenham shirt and believes the striker's World Cup qualifying feats were just the boost he needed.

A desperate start to the Premier League season by Kane has seen the striker net just once in 10 games for Spurs, and provide only a single assist.

After last season's 23 goals from 35 games, which he complemented with a career-high 14 assists, it marks a drastic waning in fortunes for the England captain.

The most widely advanced theory among those questioning that decline is that Kane is fatigued, not only from his exertions with England at Euro 2020 but from a drawn-out saga concerning his own future.

Kane was widely expected to be a Manchester City player by now, but that did not come to pass, with Tottenham resistant to efforts to take their star man.

He failed to deliver in the league for Nuno Espirito Santo during the Portuguese's short-lived spell as Tottenham boss, but new head coach Conte will expect Kane to produce talismanic performances.

After firing a hat-trick against Albania last Friday, followed by four against San Marino, Kane reached 16 goals in the calendar year for England, a new record for the team.

"To score is never easy. I'm happy for him, the national team. England are now ready to play in the World Cup in Qatar," Conte said.

"It's a good achievement. I am happy for Harry because he broke the record with England. We are talking about a world-class striker, an important player for us.

"For sure to score is a boost for him. I am very happy, I have the possibility to get to know him much more.

"He is a top player, he wants to train very hard and improve. It's fantastic for me because my first task is to try and improve the players, bring them to another level. I think in this team, many players can do this."

Kane has managed a minimum of 17 goals in each of the last seven Premier League seasons, but he has serious work to do to threaten that mark this term.

After 10 games last season, he had seven goals and nine assists, clicking sensationally with Son Heung-min as Tottenham made a flying start that saw them lead the table in early December.

Jose Mourinho and his players could not convert that into a sustained title challenge, and Tottenham are already so far back this term that a push for the Premier League trophy is almost a non-starter. They sit ninth heading into the weekend, 10 points adrift of leaders Chelsea.

For the home game against Leeds United on Sunday, they will be without the injured Cristian Romero, and Conte has a doubt over Giovani Lo Celso after his return from Argentina duty.

Conte says everyone at Tottenham must "feel important" and have "a sense of belonging".

"You must work with your heart, passion," said the former Inter, Chelsea, Italy and Juventus boss. "This is the right way to improve and extend the sense of belonging to our supporters and our players during the game."

He hopes Tanguy Ndombele, Tottenham's blissfully talented midfielder, feels that way. According to Conte, Ndombele "has to work much more than the others".

The French playmaker endured a poor 2020-21 season, with his contributions nosediving. In a host of departments, his numbers slumped.

Per 90 minutes played in the Premier League, his performances slipped from a promising 2019-20 effort, with goals per 90 falling (0.18 to 0.13), assists going the same way (0.18 to 0.09), along with chances created (1.07 to 0.6), tackles won (1.43 to 0.85) and successful passes ending in the final third (14.39 to 10.64).

Conte said: "I have seen many managers struggle with his position. He has the quality. He has to understand it is a team, and he has to play into the team.

"It is important to do what the position asks you to do. We are working very hard. He has to work much more than the others.

"He has talent, but he has to put it into the team for the team, not for the single player. Every single player has to know what he has to do. If every player just runs around the pitch, it will be a mess."

Gareth Southgate joked he would have come under pressure from Wayne Rooney's family if he left Harry Kane on to add to his England tally in the 10-0 thrashing of San Marino. 

Kane scored four first-half goals in San Marino on Monday, making him the first England player to achieve that since Ian Wright in 1993 and setting a Three Lions record with 16 goals in a single calendar year. 

The Tottenham striker had equalled the previous benchmark of 12 with a hat-trick against Albania last week, with his efforts at Stadio Olimpico di Serravalle making him just the fourth Three Lions player to register trebles in consecutive games. 

Kane drew level with Gary Lineker in third on England's all-time scoring list with 48 goals, just five shy of Rooney's record, but made way for Reece James in the 63rd minute. 

"If we'd have left him another half an hour … we'd have had Wayne Rooney's family on the phone telling us to get him off," Southgate joked to ITV. 

"He's a phenomenal goalscorer. He's obviously not had the opportunity in some of those games where there have been a lot of goals available. We wanted to give him that chance tonight, and he took it really well." 

With England having secured qualification for the 2022 World Cup with the win, Kane could surpass Rooney's record on the biggest stage of them all in Qatar. 

Asked for his feelings after drawing level with Lineker, he said: "It's fantastic again. Every time I wear an England shirt, I am proud, and whenever I can score goals, it is one of the greatest feelings I can have in my career. It's nice to be among those names, and hopefully we can keep them coming." 

The victory was England's biggest in a competitive away match and means that in 2021 they have won more games (15), scored more goals (52) and kept more clean sheets (14) than in any other calendar year in their history. 

Southgate said: "I've got to credit all our players and staff on a really good year. Even in a game like tonight, you can't do anything about the level of the opposition, but the mentality, the way they played, the way they applied themselves was terrific." 

Harry Kane made history as England booked their place at the 2022 World Cup with a dominant 10-0 qualifying victory over San Marino, who finished with 10 men on Monday.

England only needed a point to be guaranteed of finishing top of Group I and booking their place in Qatar, but a win never looked in doubt, with Harry Maguire's header and Filippo Fabbri's own goal preceding a four-goal salvo from Kane. 

The Tottenham striker became the first England player to score more than 12 goals in a calendar year with the first of two penalties, and by the end of the half he had gone from matching Jimmy Greaves' 44 international goals to drawing level with Gary Lineker (48) in third on the Three Lions' all-time scoring list. 

Emile Smith Rowe marked his full debut with a goal before Dante Rossi saw red for San Marino, with Tyrone Mings, Tammy Abraham and Bukayo Saka compounding San Marino's misery in a non-competitive game.

Maguire scored the opening goal for the second game running when he headed Phil Foden's corner home, and in the 15th minute Saka's scuffed shot was inadvertently poked inside the near post by Fabbri. 

Kane converted from the penalty spot after referee Rade Obrenovic penalised Rossi for handling Foden's acrobatic effort in the box, and the Tottenham striker doubled his tally with a volley from Smith Rowe's delivery. 

Kane completed a 12-minute hat-trick by drilling another spot-kick – awarded after Alessandro D'Addario handled his header – into the top-left corner, and he made it four before half-time with a cool finish at the end of a mazy run. 

Abraham was sent on as one of three half-time substitutes and teed up Smith Rowe in the 57th minute, with Mings looping a first England goal home after Rossi was shown a second yellow card for tripping debutant Conor Gallagher.

Jude Bellingham had a maiden England strike of his own chalked off following a VAR review two minutes later, but Abraham steered in a majestic half-volley and Saka nodded in a 10th to complete the scoring in the 79th minute.

What does it mean? Records tumble for Kane and England 

The new record for England goals in a calendar year now stands at 16 after Kane moved clear of George Hilsdon (in 1908) and Dixie Dean (in 1927) with a clinical first-half display. 

He became just the fourth player to hit a hat-trick in consecutive Three Lions appearances and the first to score four goals in a single game since Ian Wright in November 1993 – also against San Marino. 

England racked up six in the first half for the first time since an 8-2 win over Netherlands in 1946 and finished with 10 for the first time since beating the United States by the same scoreline in 1964.

Southgate brings in more fresh blood 

By handing Aaron Ramsdale and Gallagher their first England caps against San Marino, Gareth Southgate has now given 50 players their senior international debut. The last Three Lions manager to do that was Bobby Robson (64). 

Smith Rowe at home

Smith Rowe became the first Arsenal player to score on his first start for England since Paul Merson in March 1992. He was also the 18th different England goalscorer in 2021 – the most the Three Lions have ever had in a single calendar year.

What's next? 

There is nothing in the schedule for either team in the next international break, though the focus will be friendly matches to build up to the World Cup. 

England captain Harry Kane has set a new record for Three Lions goals in a calendar year by netting his 13th of 2021 against San Marino.

George Hilsdon (in 1908) and Dixie Dean (in 1927) for a long time stood alone with a benchmark dozen in a single year before Kane also tallied 12 in England colours in 2019.

The Tottenham forward reached that mark again at home to Albania on Friday as he netted his fourth international hat-trick.

The 5-0 Wembley win meant England needed only a point at minnows San Marino to qualify for the 2022 World Cup, but Kane was keen to feature and add to his total.

"[Kane] is quick to let me know that he hasn't played in those games [against Andorra and San Marino]," manager Gareth Southgate said at the weekend.

In an otherwise experimental line-up on Monday, featuring Emile Smith Rowe from the start for the first time, Kane led the line and got on the scoresheet.

 

Kane netted the visitors' third from the penalty spot in the 27th minute after Harry Maguire's opener and a Filippo Fabbri own goal.

It was England's 45th goal of 2021, also extending a team record at the end of a year that began with a 5-0 home success against San Marino.

Raheem Sterling's future at Manchester City remains unclear.

The England winger has only made three Premier League starts this season.

Sterling, who starred during England's run to the Euro 2020 final, could now be on the move.

 

TOP STORY – BARCA RESOLUTE ON RAHEEM

Barcelona are determined to sign Raheem Sterling from Manchester City despite the Premier League club's refusal to let him leave, reports Manchester Evening News.

The Catalans want to bring Sterling to Camp Nou in January on a loan deal, with the forward open to a move after losing his regular starting spot at City.

Sterling still has 18 months remaining on his City contract and the English champions have no intention of accepting an offer for him.

 

ROUND-UP

Manchester City are set to launch a new bid for Tottenham forward Harry Kane in January, claims ESPN. City pursued Kane over the off-season but the Spurs skipper ultimately remained in London after Tottenham declined their approaches.

- El Nacional reports Real Madrid head coach Carlo Ancelotti has told the club to sell or release Gareth Bale. The Wales forward has only made three appearances this term and is contracted to Los Blancos only until the end of the season.

Hakim Ziyech is unhappy at Chelsea and could be lured to Borussia Dortmund, claims The Mirror. The Morocco winger could move in January, having been unable to re-discover his best form at Chelsea after moving from Ajax in 2020.

Norwich City are set to offer ex-Aston Villa boss Dean Smith their vacant manager role, according to Sky Sports. Smith was sacked as Villa coach this week.

- The Daily Record claims former Feyenoord coach Giovanni van Bronckhorst will hold talks with Rangers about taking over as manager after Steven Gerrard's departure for Villa.

Hat-trick hero Harry Kane was happy with the ruthlessness shown by England as they easily swept aside Albania 5-0 at Wembley Stadium to put themselves on the verge of qualifying for the 2022 World Cup.

Five first-half goals from the Three Lions sealed the victory on Friday, meaning that Gareth Southgate's team need just a point from their final game in Group I against the lowest-ranked team in the world, San Marino, on Monday.

Kane has come in for some criticism at club level this season after scoring just once in 10 Premier League appearances for Tottenham, but he was back to his best for his country, scoring a perfect hat-trick, with a header followed by one with his left foot and one with his right.

Speaking to BBC Radio Five Live after the win, Kane said: "[It was a] great night for the team first and foremost. An important result for us and just the way we went about it.

"To go 5-0 up at half-time shows the character of the squad. We had a bit of a disappointing performance last time we were here at Wembley and we wanted to put that right, and we did that. A great night all round and we can look forward to Monday.

"We were looking to be ruthless all around the pitch, not just in the box or the finishing, we wanted to make it a tough night for them to show the country and the world what we are capable of and I think we did that.

"We will keep doing what we are doing, keep working hard as a team and a squad and hopefully keep improving. Still to get the job done on Monday."

On his own form, Kane was keen to dismiss the relevance of the noise around his performances after going level with Jimmy Greaves in England's all-time scorer list (44).

"Whenever I score I seem to be sharp, whenever I don't, I'm not sharp anymore. That is part and parcel of being a striker. The most important thing is we are moving forward as a team."

England boss Gareth Southgate was equally pleased with his team's efforts, and was understandably effusive about their first-half showing, saying to ITV: "The first half was fantastic, as well as we've played for a long time. It was hard to maintain that.

"We're best when we have an edge. We didn't produce what we should against Hungary, but we had a game tonight that could put us on the verge of qualification for the World Cup.

"I thought Harry gave a brilliant centre forward's performance - held the ball up, played other people in. HIs all-round game was excellent."

Southgate was also asked about rumours that he will sign a new contract. He responded: "We need a point [to qualify] and it would be wrong for my attention to be anywhere else. It's an irrelevance for me. I'm under contract, I'm very well backed and supported and my focus is just on getting qualification done."

Harry Kane scored a perfect hat-trick as England moved within one point of qualification for the 2022 World Cup after a ruthless first-half performance saw them win 5-0 against Albania at Wembley Stadium on Friday.

Kane's treble and goals from Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson - all in the first 45 minutes - sealed a comfortable win for the Three Lions, leaving them needing only to avoid defeat in San Marino on Monday in their final game in Group I to book their place at Qatar 2022.

The visitors were all over the place defensively, looking a shadow of the team that had won three of their previous four away games in the group.

England slowed things down in the second half with the game already well won and Gareth Southgate was even able to rest Kane for the final 30 minutes ahead of the trip to San Marino.

The hosts took the lead in the ninth minute when a superb free-kick from Reece James found an unmarked Maguire at the back post and the Manchester United man thundered his header past Thomas Strakosha.

Myrto Uzuni had a glorious chance to equalise five minutes later when Kyle Walker played a loose pass back to Jordan Pickford, but England's goalkeeper denied him.

It was 2-0 in the 18th minute, Henderson playing a one-two with Phil Foden on the right before lifting in a delicate cross to give Kane a simple header.

Henderson then got in on the act himself as he played another one-two, this time with Kane, and the Liverpool captain finished it off himself with his left foot to make it 3-0 before the half-hour mark.

Kane got his second and England's fourth in the 34th minute by firing past Strakosha with his left foot after being played in by Raheem Sterling. It was the England skipper's 38th competitive goal for England, beating the record set by Wayne Rooney.

The Tottenham man then completed his perfect hat-trick in first-half stoppage time when he executed a sublime scissor kick with his right foot from a Foden corner to make it 5-0 before the break.

The second half was a much quieter affair, though Southgate was able to give a senior international debut to Arsenal youngster Emile Smith Rowe, who replaced Raheem Sterling with 15 minutes remaining. 

What does it mean? Southgate continues to impress

This game was Gareth Southgate's 67th in charge of England, the joint-most of any England manager since Sir Bobby Robson left in 1990, and equalling Sven-Goran Eriksson's tally between 2001 and 2006.

Southgate has won more games (43) than Eriksson could (40) and his latest victory was never in doubt here.

A single point in San Marino will see England qualify for Qatar 2022, and ensure that the Three Lions have progressed to every major tournament since Euro 2008.

Defence is the best form of attack for England

Southgate has often been criticised for his team selections being on the cautious side, and he went into this one with five defenders and two defensive-minded midfielders in his starting XI.

His team then proceeded to tear Albania to shreds in the first half, having 71 per cent of the ball, taking 11 shots and banging in five goals.

England have now scored 42 goals in 2021 - their most ever in a calendar year, overtaking their previous record of 39 in 1908.

Lack of discipline hurts Albania

Albania have had a good qualifying campaign, winning five of their previous eight games heading into this.

They always looked to be on a hiding to nothing against a determined England though and did not help themselves by picking up three bookings in first 25 minutes, making looking after Sterling, Foden and Kane all the trickier.

Edoardo Reja's team were either too strong or too weak in the tackle, only winning 36.9 per cent of their duels.

What’s next?

England travel to San Marino while Albania host Andorra in the final round of UEFA World Cup qualifiers in Group I on Monday.

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