Harry Kane and Theo Walcott head England’s forward thinking

• Roy Hodgson not getting carried away by Euro 2016 form
• Bigger tests will come in friendlies against France and Spain

Roy Hodgson has put England’s pristine qualifying record for Euro 2016 in proper perspective by suggesting he and his coaching staff “are not deluding ourselves” about the team’s progress since last year’s disastrous World Cup.

England will seek to secure a ninth win from nine qualifiers, against Estonia on Friday, with Harry Kane making his first competitive start in the absence of the injured Wayne Rooney and Theo Walcott playing alongside the Tottenham Hotspur striker. A crowd of more than 80,000 is anticipated at Wembley for the fixture despite England having already claimed Group E and secured their passage to the finals in France, and with Hodgson placing greater emphasis on the more daunting friendly fixtures still to come.

His side will play France at Wembley and Spain in Alicante next month, with further fixtures in the Netherlands and Germany in March, all games England hope will demonstrate how far the team have come since their toils in Brazil. “We’ve still got an awful lot of work to do, an awful lot of playing together to do, against good quality opposition who will test us out to the ultimate extent,” said Hodgson. “Those matches will maybe bring out some flaws in our game that we don’t always see in some of the fixtures we play.

“But we’re ready for that. We’re not deluding ourselves. We can be rightly proud of our achievements since the World Cup. We don’t need to hide our light under the bush in that respect, but we know there are big games ahead. I’m pleased the friendlies can be matches we can lose, defeats which might see us sink even further down the [Fifa] rankings, rather than wins against teams which won’t teach us everything we need to learn.

“Those games will be good for us. We’ll be playing teams who have been together for a long time, like Germany: experienced bunches, talented teams. Spain are the same, and France and Holland are not too far off. If we can put in good performances in those four friendly games, that’ll give us heart. If we don’t, we’ll have to start addressing some of the issues that come from them. But I don’t worry about potential problems.

“You must remember we are putting an awful lot of responsibility on the shoulders of young men, players like Chris Smalling and Harry Kane, plus John Stones who is not with us for these games. These are very exciting moments and very exciting players, but they are going to need these [friendly] games in particular to get a real taste of what we need to be like if we are ever going to be successful in a major tournament.”

Rooney will receive a golden boot before kick-off on Friday to mark his record 50th goal for his country, scored against Switzerland last month, but will then return to Manchester United for treatment on an ankle injury sustained at Arsenal last Sunday and will miss the final group game in Lithuania as a result. It is a little over two years since the 29-year-old missed a competitive fixture for his country, and the last time England lost a qualifier in his absence was Steve McClaren’s final match in charge in 2007.

“But, if he’s going to miss anything, I’d prefer to be without him in these final two qualifiers than the friendlies in November,” said Hodgson. “We’d desperately like to win both of these qualifiers but it’s not the be all and end all if we don’t.” Danny Ings will also be unavailable against Estonia with an ankle complaint, though England are hopeful Michael Carrick will have recovered from a tight groin to anchor the side’s midfield. Walcott, excellent of late in a central role at Arsenal, is expected to begin on the right of a front three.

Kane, who scored his first goal for Tottenham Hotspur this season in the 4-1 victory over Manchester City, in front of the England manager, will start against Estonia – ranked 87th in the world, just below the Faroe Islands – in Rooney’s absence. “It’s a big opportunity,” said Hodgson. “Harry will play in the central position Wayne usually plays, so there will be no tactical disturbance at all. He’s waited a long time for his chance, not least through the Under-21 championship last summer, but we always believed in him. He’s got a good career ahead of him, so it’s nice he’ll get an opportunity. With Wayne out, he’s in pole position.

“I’ve always believed he has more to his game than just goals but, as a forward, you get headlines for goals, not as a provider or your overall style of play. It’s not bothered me as much that he hasn’t scored the goals because Tottenham Hotspur have been doing well, and he’s been playing a part in those victories.”

Gary Cahill, who will lead England out for the first time, experienced Kane at his most destructive in Spurs’ 5-3 win over Chelsea on New Year’s Day. “In that particular game he was on fire,” said the stand-in captain. “He’s not scared to turn and try and run you, take you on, he’s physically strong, and he has his attributes as a finisher – left foot, right foot, good with his head … well, he’s got half a chance. He’s an exciting player, still young, still developing. Last year he was fantastic. This season he’s helped the team do well and, for us, training with him the last few days, you can see he’s a top-class performer.”