This was a frustrating way for England to complete their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign. Yes, England had long sown up qualification and this draw with North Macedonia meant they will be one of the top seeds for next month’s draw having gone unbeaten, but it was a frustrating evening all the same.
Frustrating not only because Gareth Southgate’s team were unable to finish with a flourish and win a ninth game out of ten for this calendar year, but also because the manner in which they fell behind was harsh to say the least.
Debutant Rico Lewis was adjudged to have fouled Bojan Miovski of Aberdeen when jumping for a header and inadvertently catching the North Macedonia player. It was a dubious penalty award, given by VAR, amidst an officiating display that failed to inspire confidence.
Enis Bardhi scored from the rebound after Jordan Pickford saved the spot-kick to give the home team a surprise lead and England’s work thereon was to expunge that unfortunate breakthrough.
Naturally, it was Harry Kane who brought about the equaliser; coming off the bench and inducing instant anxiety in the North Macedonia penalty area as Jani Atanasov put into his own net under duress. But the visitors, for the second game running, were far from their best in a rather flat display.
Story of the game
Lewis’s debut came as a result of Southgate’s diminished options at left back because of injuries and Kieran Trippier’s withdrawal from the squad for a personal matter. The Manchester City player, who turns 19 on Tuesday, has shown his versatility for his club and often drifted into midfield on his international bow.
Lewis was one of six changes from Friday’s low-key win over Malta with Ollie Watkins coming in for Kane to make his third England start. Trent Alexander-Arnold kept his place in midfield after a good showing at Wembley.
For North Macedonia the memory of their 7-0 thrashing at the hands of England in June, their heaviest ever defeat will have added greater purpose to this final qualifier of the group.
It was a first half that England dominated with possession ticking over but too often not really hurting the home team. There was plenty of passing around the back but not enough incision further upfield. Declan Rice firing a shot against the upright from distance was the closest England came in the early stages.
North Macedonia, ranked 66th in the world, got numbers behind the ball and got stuck into challenges — clearly the much-scrutinised, newly-laid pitch at the Tose Proeski Arena was not England’s only cause for injury concern.
The home team did almost have a way into the contest midway through the half when Harry Maguire carelessly gave the ball to Miovski and then recklessly flew in on Eljif Elmas. The England centre-back’s studs got caught in the turf as he tried to pull out of the challenge but still collided with Elmas and was fortunate not to give away a penalty.
The opposite could be said four minutes before the break when England were harshly penalised. Lewis jumped to head the ball away, using his arms for leverage, and his left hand caught Miovski’s face. There was nothing unnatural about the leap, and the Slovakian referee Filip Glova originally ignored appeals, but VAR intervened and awarded the spot-kick.
Pickford flew to his left to save Bardhi’s firmly-struck penalty but could only push the ball back towards the striker, who dispatched the rebound.
England, clearly enraged, had the bit between their teeth and responded well either side of the interval.
Lewis struck a shot that was easy pickings for Stole Dimitrievski and then Alexander-Arnold whipped an effort that the home goalkeeper tipped over the crossbar. The half ended with Maguire getting a boot in the face from a corner but claims for a penalty were futile.
Within two minutes of the restart England had the ball past Dimitrievski only for it to be ruled out for offside after a lengthy VAR check. Bukayo Saka jinked his way into the area and clipped the ball towards the far post for Jack Grealish. His side-footed finish was in vain, though.
Still, it was better from the visitors and Southgate, attempting to preserve England’s unbeaten group-stage, sent on Kane just before the hour for Watkins, who had been largely anonymous. It was to devastating effect.
Kane ran onto the pitch as Phil Foden, again England’s most creative presence, prepared to curl in a corner. The England captain, with his first touch, got his head to the whipped corner and the ball bounced in off Atanasov.
It was the 200th goal of Southgate’s tenure and the most appropriate of goalscorers for the landmark. A winner, however, was not forthcoming as England were forced to settle for only their second draw of the campaign.
Player of the game: Phil Foden
For the second game running, Foden was England's most creative outlet and was the provider of the corner that brought about the equaliser.