England were held to a 1-1 draw away at North Macedonia in Skopje on Monday as a Jani Atanasov own goal was required to ensure the Three Lions finished their Euro 2024 qualification campaign unbeaten.
Gareth Southgate’s men were disappointing in edging past Malta at Wembley Stadium on Friday, and Enis Bardhi’s 41st-minute rebound after a saved spot-kick had North Macedonia dreaming of a huge scalp against a side ranked fourth in the world.
England would hit back in the second half, Atanasov turning into his own net with just over half an hour to play, but North Macedonia would hold firm to earn a draw despite the Three Lions’ late efforts to find a winner.
England still qualify and finish top of Group C, but it’s another below-par display from the Three Lions, one that will hardly spark fear among their Euro 2024 rivals ahead of the tournament in Germany next year.
— England (@England) November 20, 2023
After having a goal ruled out against Malta, Declan Rice was inches away from finally opening his England account with a long-range effort, though his shot came back off the post as England looked for an early lead.
Ollie Watkins then miscued with a free header, while North Macedonia saw a penalty shout come and go at the other end as a clumsy Harry Maguire challenge felled Elif Elmas.
The hosts would take the lead against the run of play thanks to a very controversial intervention from VAR, debutant Rico Lewis harshly punished somewhat for catching Bojan Miovski with a stray arm as he tried to head clear.
The penalty was awarded, and though Jordan Pickford got down to save Bardhi’s initial spot-kick, the Trabzonspor man was alert to tap home the rebound to send North Macedonia into the break a goal up.
England thought they had levelled after less than two minutes of the second half as excellent work from Bukayo Saka ended with him curling a cross towards the back post for Jack Grealish to tap home, though VAR again stepped in, ruling the Manchester City man offside.
Harry Kane replaced Watkins with 58 minutes gone, and his first act was to be the target of a Phil Foden inswinging corner. Kane’s presence troubled Atanasov, and the ball came off the North Macedonia man before nestling into the back of the net as England got back on level terms.
Saka continued to threaten down England’s right, seeing a shot blocked after a clever pass from Lewis as the Three Lions pressed for a winner while growing increasingly frustrated with the officials.
But North Macedonia would hold on, ending their qualification campaign on a high having missed the opportunity to make it to Euro 2024, while Southgate will be left with plenty to think about as he tries to finally get England over the hump at a major tournament.
MAN OF THE MATCH – Bukayo Saka
The Arsenal man was lively the entire game, and it appeared his neat footwork and cross had hauled England back into the contest moments before half-time before Grealish was ruled offside.
If England were to find a winner, Saka would likely have been involved as he continues to become one of Southgate’s key players and one that he needs fit and firing heading into the Euros.
Things could have been so much worse for England, still behind with nearly an hour gone and yet to really trouble Stole Dimitrievski.
But the introduction of Kane in the 58th minute immediately paid dividends as his presence played a part in Atanasov turning into his own net to level.
Kane gave England more of a focal point up top, and though he was unable to find a winner, he again proved his importance for the Three Lions by making an almost instant impact off the bench.