One of the disappointments of the 2015-16 Premier League season's evolving title race was that its key runners did not get to face off in the final stretch.
Champions Leicester City will not mind they did not have to face their nearest challenger, Tottenham Hotspur, in the spring. They beat them in January, and the eventual 11-point gap more than proved their superiority.
Still, for dramatic purposes, it is a shame such a clash did not occur in the campaign's closing months—not least because it would have also given us England internationals Jamie Vardy and Harry Kane in a contest of the division's leading scorers at a point when everything was on the line.
Heading into Euro 2016, Three Lions boss Roy Hodgson may have appreciated such a duel too.
These two previously unheralded centre-forwards have demanded his attention over the past couple of seasons. A meeting between them and their respective clubs might have served as a potential decider in his mind between players with only a goal between them (Kane's 25 goals earning him the Golden Boot).
Such a separation may have been valuable because Hodgson is having trouble figuring out how best to incorporate both in his team. That's a most unwanted headache on the eve of a European Championship.
Against Turkey in May, Kane led the line with Vardy initially to his left before the two united as a pair. Both scored either side of the tactical change in a 2-1 win.
In England's last warm-up friendly before the tournament, against Portugal, they started out on the wings so as to also accommodate Wayne Rooney. The skipper and Hodgson favourite had scored in their absence in the preceding 2-1 victory over Australia.
On paper, the prospect of arguably England's three best attackers in the same team was an exciting one. In practice, it was a compromise that—at least in this instance—did none of them any good. The eventual 1-0 victory came by way of a Chris Smalling header when all three had been substituted.
"The understanding isn't just going to happen overnight," Kane reasoned, per BBC Sport. "Of course we would have wanted a few more chances and a few more shots at goal, but it's something we are still working on, so there is no reason for anyone to get too downhearted."
That may still prove the case. But Hodgson's need to include Rooney undoubtedly unsettled a burgeoning understanding—if not directly between Kane and Vardy, then at least in how they both might be utilised. The distinct but effective contributions they made in the recent wins over Turkey and Germany gave way to positional and creative marginalisation.
Hodgson has made clear his loyalty to his captain.
"You’re talking about the player who has played 111 games for England and scored 52 goals, so perhaps his best position is anywhere on the field," the 68-year-old said post-Portugal, per the Guardian's Daniel Taylor.
Whether you agree or disagree with that backing, it is a moot point with Rooney almost certain to start. His involvement should not be mutually exclusive with Kane and/or Vardy doing well.
The bigger issue is it feels like Hodgson is playing them both because he feels he has to, not because he genuinely has faith in them. This uncertainty is disappointing as, so far, they have given him every reason to trust they can perform effectively and conduct themselves professionally.
Kane was the first of the two to fire his way into the England reckoning.
The team's attack had been doing well in qualifying heading into spring 2015. But Kane's scintillating Tottenham performances—including a hat-trick against Vardy's Leicester—could not be ignored, and he got the call for the games against Lithuania and Italy.
Coming off the bench, he grabbed a debut goal in the former qualifier and further impressed up against one of European football's tougher back lines in the Azzurri.
Kane then returned to the under-21 fold for the junior European Championship but was back at it again in the autumn. Further strikes in wins over San Marino and Switzerland helped confirm England's qualification for Euro 2016.
With Kane absent, Vardy got his first call-up for the end-of-season fixtures and featured in a bore draw against the Republic of Ireland last June. Hodgson told BBC Sport prior to the game "that it will be nice to get to know him better."
There was more hype around another new face in Charlie Austin at that point. The then-Queens Park Rangers striker had scored 17 Premier League goals compared to Vardy's five (though his pace and industry had certainly garnered attention).
The Leicester man was slower to make an impact on the international scene than Kane. But with his club form so strong in 2015-16—notably breaking Ruud van Nistelrooy's long-held Premier League consecutive record for scoring in consecutive games (11 to Van Nistelrooy's 10) last November—he was doing more than enough to remain in the picture moving forward.
England's 3-2 win over Germany in March was just a friendly. But you do not beat the world champions on their own turf without showing something.
Kane and Vardy's contributions to the comeback victory were as notable for their class and confidence as their general occurrence.
The former's brilliant Cruyff turn and fine finish dragged England back into the match shortly after Mario Gomez had given the Germans a 2-0 lead. The latter joined the action and produced a sublime, almost cheeky flick to level the scores.
Perhaps we should not have been surprised given how well they were still playing for Spurs and the Foxes respectively. Nevertheless, seeing their qualities up against such renowned opponents reinforced optimism they could deliver on an even bigger stage.
Except Hodgson does not quite appear to be there yet.
"It’s a good problem to have, shoehorning in attacking players," Hodgson added after the Portugal game, again per the Guardian. "I don’t think I’ve had that for a long time—a lot of good attacking players to shoehorn in—so you won’t find me complaining."
It is a worrying statement, as no player should be squeezed into any team. Balance and cohesiveness should be the aspiration, not selecting as many talented individuals as possible and hoping they will click.
In qualifying, England moved away from the star-driven, ineffective favouritism that plagued them over the preceding 15 years. Kane and Vardy forced their way into Hodgson's thinking, but that Germany game was so encouraging because their involvement felt like a natural evolution, not a thoughtless concession to received wisdom.
The injury to Danny Welbeck—a constant left-sided counterpoint since the 2014 World Cup—has forced Hodgson's hand. His decision to involve both Kane and Vardy is appearing more a reaction to the fact they are the in-form men rather than out of a real appreciation for their qualities.
If that was, and is the case, he may realise the best way of truly showing faith in them would be having the courage to not necessarily play them both. In a system and atmosphere he believes Rooney to be integral to, applying more nuanced thought as to how he deploys Kane and Vardy may get more out of them.
As close an amalgamation to Alan Shearer and Teddy Sheringham you are likely to find, Kane would seem the natural choice to lead England's attack. Certainly to begin with and if Hodgson decides to go with a 4-3-3.
The 22-year-old is strong, skilful, brave and smart. He can be a target man for the team's wide men and someone for his midfielders (especially Tottenham team-mate Dele Alli) to link up with, able to take the game to an opponent with and without the ball.
England need to be bold in the upcoming tournament, but they also need to be smart. Kane has shown himself a capable, multi-layered frontman ready to deliver on both counts.
"I just love the way he’s taken on the mantle of being the number one striker, because it’s not easy," Sheringham told Tottenham's official website last August.
Vardy can work in conjunction with Kane for sure. But given the greater width and balance a 4-3-3 provides (deployed well in the first hour against Germany despite the scoreline) as opposed to the more offensive but less adaptable diamond 4-4-2, using the 29-year-old as a Plan B rather than consigning him to the flank may be better for getting more out of him.
He is as quick and natural a striker as England have had since Michael Owen. No opponent would relish having to deal with him late in a game. And Plan B does not just mean using him as an impact substitute.
There could be scenarios, if England progress, in which they will need Vardy's speed on the counter and on the shoulder of defenders—a tactic that would allow them to set up a little more defensively while still retaining a considerable attacking threat.
Whatever Hodgson decides, he needs to find a way to believe in Kane and Vardy.
Getting the best out of them is crucial to England's advancement. Compromising seems unlikely to achieve this.