North Macedonia 1-1 England (Bardhi 41′ | Atanasov 59′ og)
England needed an own goal to secure the draw they required last night to ensure that they finished Euro 2024 qualifying Group C as unbeaten leaders and guaranteed a place among the top seeds in the finals in Germany this summer.
But it was yet another unconvincing display and one more reminder of how much Gareth Southgate’s team depends on Harry Kane, who came on as a substitute after 58 minutes and immediately pressured defender Jani Atanasov into putting the ball into his own net.
After Friday’s lacklustre 2-0 home win over Malta, improvement was expected against a team that the Three Lions had beaten 7-0 at Old Trafford in June. Instead they went behind four minutes before half time when a penalty was harshly awarded against debutant Rico Lewis.
Although England moved the ball around reasonably well outside the penalty area after that, they found it difficult to get through the massed ranks of a team that was determined not to suffer another big defeat, and certainly not in front of their own fans.
Lewis, though, was one of the bright spots. Nominally left back, he spent most of the opening exchanges on the left side of midfield as the home side retreated in numbers at any sign of danger, no doubt remembering what had happened in Manchester.
That, and one or two slips on the recently-relaid playing surfaces, restricted England’s early fluency. But around the quarter-hour they twice came close to taking the lead. First Declan Rice hit a low, skidding angled shot against the far post from 20 yards out with goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski sprawling to his left in vain.
Then, as the ball was played back in from the left, Ollie Watkins found himself completely unmarked six yards out with only Dimitrievski to beat only to steer his free header wide.
However, England were fortunate not to concede a penalty after 23 minutes. Harry Maguire gave the ball away to lone striker Bojan Miovski under no pressure whatsoever, and when the Aberdeen man played it out to Elif Elmas on the left, Maguire, attempting to rescue the situation, brought the Napoli attacker down with a clumsy, stumbling challenge. Fortunately for Maguire, Filip Glova, the Slovakian referee, saw things differently.
But 16 minutes later Glova was pointing to the spot after being invited by VAR to look again at Lewis’s hand brushing the face of Miovski as the England man jumped to head clear. Macedonia captain Enis Bardhi saw his first kick beaten away by Jordan Pickford but followed up to net the rebound.
Trent Alexander-Arnold almost levelled before the break with a dipping effort that forced Dimitrievski to fingertip the ball over the crossbar. And England then appealed for a penalty of their own when Maguire’s attempt at a stooping header brought him into contact with a defender’s boot.
Jack Grealish thought he had equalised two minutes into the restart but was ruled offside as he bundled in a cross from Bukayo Saka.
Kane replaced Watkins just short of the hour and although at first it appeared that he had scored with his first touch, it was his marker, Atanasov, whose shoulder had deflected Phil Foden’s corner kick into his own net. But England were unable to take inspiration from that stroke of luck.