This is what happens when Harry Kane – in the form of his life – is left to kick his heels on the bench. When he was unchained, the result was instant, the England captain forced the equalizer 40 seconds after being introduced.
It would have gone down as an own goal for North Macedonia midfielder Jani Atanasov, but the presence of Kane, who darted on to Phil Foden’s corner just before the hour, marked his panic.
And so England got something out of the final game of their excellent Euro 2024 qualification campaign, their progress will be in no doubt from the moment they beat Italy in Naples in the final. Mercifully, the goal took some of the focus away from the referee, Filip Glova, who had one of those evenings when it was impossible to ignore, mainly for the wrong reasons.
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Glova had kicked England and debutant Rico Lewis, who came on to fill the problem position at left-back, when he gave North Macedonia a penalty towards the end of the first half. Enis Bardhi scored from the rebound after his tackle was saved. After a nudge from VAR, Glova ruled that Lewis had put his hand against Bojan Miovski as he won a clearing header. It wasn’t Glova’s only hilarious intervention.
The game ended after that, England far from perfect but still better than they were in last Friday’s 2-0 Wembley win over Malta. They finish the calendar year with a record of eight wins and two draws from 10 games. As everyone knows, it will be about how they finish the season at the European Championship in Germany.
North Macedonia were determined from the start to let England know that they would be in a physical battle and the constant harassment of Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, in particular, was very hard and a test of the mentality of the respective wings. Gareth Southgate threw his hands up in frustration.
Glova was far too central for anyone’s liking and had two decisions to make at the other end in the first half, North Macedonia screaming for a kick on each occasion. He ignored the first and gave the second, which felt wrong on every occasion but did that make it right? Let’s start with the first, which was the highlight of the half as, until then, England dominated, Ollie Watkins – who started ahead of Kane – had a few sniffs and Declan Rice hit a low shot through the crowd. and against the long post.
There was no danger when Harry Maguire received the ball in the 23rd minute and then, in the blink of an eye, it was when it went straight to Miovski, who moved it to Eljif Elmas. Watch the head-to-head between Maguire and Elmas, and the former’s challenge was clumsy, to say the least. He seemed to lose his balance and barge into Elmas; shades of Boris Johnson at Soccer Aid. Glova gave Maguire the benefit of the doubt.
On to the next and it was Lewis who stepped up to take out a cross from the North Macedonia left, winning the ball clear. But why was Miovski, the Aberdeen striker, laid out on the ground? It turned out that Lewis had put his hand against Miovski while he was gearing and jumping. On the VAR’s advice, Glova checked the pitchside monitor and, after much thought, focused on the spot. It was a very difficult decision. The captain of North Macedonia, Bardhi, saw Jordan Pickford save a kick but he would gobble up the rebound. Miovski was the toast of all Scotland. England had it all to do.
Related: ‘There was no crime’: Southgate praises Lewis after England’s ‘excellent’ start
England’s 7-0 win over North Macedonia at Old Trafford in June provided a significant part of the goal story. It was the heaviest defeat in the history of North Macedonia and there was little doubt that they were motivated to show that they were more than that. They did so.
Southgate’s starting XI was progressive, Trent Alexander-Arnold remained in midfield; no Kalvin Phillips, so no double bolt with Rice. It was particularly noticeable at the start how Lewis played up and inside when England were in possession; sometimes high up. Lewis could almost see the headlines early in the run when a corner was only half cleared for him. The first shot was wild. He didn’t deserve his moment of VAR misfortune.
The draw for the Euro 2024 finals will take place at 5pm (GMT) on December 2 in Hamburg, where 24 teams will be drawn into six groups.
Germany automatically qualified as hosts, and will be in Pot 1 along with the five teams with the best qualifying records – Portugal, France, Spain, Belgium and England.
Pot 2 will feature the other group winners – Denmark, Hungary, Albania, Turkey/Croatia and Romania/Switzerland – and the top-ranked runner, Austria.
The other nine groups will be runners-up in Pots 3 and 4, as well as the three playoff winners. Scotland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, Slovenia, Netherlands, Italy and Serbia they have all booked their places.
The IS playoffs to give 12 teams another chance to qualify as they are drawn into three winning ‘paths’ of four teams this Thursday. Placements and playoff paths are based on performances in the Nations League.
Corridor A Poland, Estonia, Croatia/Wales
Corridor B Israel, Bosnia, Finland/Ukraine/Iceland*
Corridor C Georgia, Greece, Kazakhstan and Luxembourg
*The team with the lowest rating will move Path B into Path A
All-seeing technology would deny England at the start of the second half. The first period ended with Alexander-Arnold stretching Stole Dimitrievski from distance and now England thought they had the equalizer after some fine work from Saka on the right. He dodged two challenges and unloaded his cross before a third could get to him. Grealish had a tap-in at the far post but it would be pulled back for offside.
England remained calm and, with Kane on the pitch, their fortunes immediately improved. It was a huge opportunity for Watkins and, in the final analysis, one he didn’t take. It was peripheral, only touching the ball 11 times.