England officially secured the highest possible group-stage seeding at Euro 2024 despite having to come from behind to draw 1-1 away at North Macedonia.
Gareth Southgate’s side, who beat Monday’s opponents 7-0 in June, fell behind to a team with just four wins in 14 as Enis Bardhi scored a rebounded penalty after a controversial call to penalise debutant Rico Lewis for an upper-body foul in the box.
Declan Rice hit the post in the first half while Jack Grealish saw a goal early in the second half ruled out by VAR, but it was captain Harry Kane who had to come off the bench and force an immediate own goal by Jani Atanasov for the equaliser from Phil Foden’s corner.
England ended their 2023 season by labouring to a draw with another indifferent display, but they got the point they needed to wrap up a Pot 1 spot when the Euro 2024 draw takes place on December 2.
England: Pickford (6); Walker (6), Guehi (7), Maguire (5), Lewis (7); Rice (8), Alexander-Arnold (5), Foden (7); Saka (7), Watkins (5), Grealish (5)
Subs: Kane (7), Rashford (n/a), Phillips (n/a), Palmer (n/a)
Player of the match: Declan Rice
Captain Kane makes immediate impact
England showed some attacking intent in the opening exchanges through their new players in the opening four minutes.
Ollie Watkins, starting in Kane’s place up front, saw a near-post shot blocked behind for a corner, with Lewis blasting over after the resulting set-piece was cleared out to him.
Then came England’s closest chance of the first half as Rice powered a low strike through players from the edge of the area, only for the midfielder to see his effort bounce off the post.
- Ollie Watkins replaced Harry Kane up front, while Rico Lewis was handed his senior England debut at left-back.
- Kyle Walker, Bukayo Saka, Jack Grealish and Declan Rice came into the team, with Kieran Tripper, Fikayo Tomori, Jordan Henderson and Conor Gallagher starting on the bench.
Watkins missed a free header from close range moments later – and couldn’t get a goalscoring touch on a slick Phil Foden through ball later in the half, as England showed signs of wastefulness with Kane on the bench.
North Macedonia gave England a warning before their opener, as Harry Maguire’s poor pass while playing out from the back was then followed by the centre-back appearing to bundle Elif Elmas over in the box.
VAR took a look at the challenge but waved it away, it was not so forgiving to Lewis just moments before the first half.
A long ball forward saw the England debutant challenge Bojan Miovski in the area and head clear, but a trailing arm on the Macedonia forward was spotted by VAR, forcing the referee to point to the spot.
Bardhi saw his initial spot-kick saved by Pickford, but slammed in the rebound as England went in behind on the break.
The visitors thought they found an equaliser seconds into the second period when Grealish tapped home Bukayo Saka’s cross from close range, but VAR penalised the goalscorer for being in an offside position.
But England did get a leveller on the hour mark, which came just 40 seconds after Kane entered the field for the wasteful Watkins.
Foden whipped an immediate corner in towards Kane in the box, with the England captain forcing a touch off Atanasov, which saw the ball nestle in the bottom corner.
Chances came few and far between after England headed towards the draw they needed. Saka saw a shot blocked in the box, while Kane headed a chance over the bar after being found unmarked in the box.
But the draw showed Southgate still has areas to solve ahead of Euro 2024. Two friendlies against Brazil and Belgium in March – then it’s time to pick his squad in May.
Maguire: Penalty decision ‘crazy’
England defender Harry Maguire showed his disapproval at the referee on Monday evening after the decision to give the hosts a penalty for a harsh call on Lewis – so much so that he said the referee « gave them a goal ».
« It was a crazy decision, » he told Sky Sports.
« I’ve said it for numerous months now: it’s making the lives even more harder for us defenders. Even in the Premier League, week in, week out, we’re playing against top-quality forwards and we can’t move our body.
« We can’t defend, can’t make contact, can’t put your arms out. It’s just too harsh, too soft penalties and for me, it’s never a penalty.
« Rico reacted really, really well from it and we put in a big performance after that. »
Watkins: Referee ‘not up to standards’
Meanwhile, forward Watkins added the referee was « not up to standards » following the first-half decision involving Lewis.
« I feel like there were a lot of decisions, fouls that weren’t fouls and vice versa, » he said to Sky Sports.
« It was harsh on Rico, he’s jumping up for the ball and he can’t jump with his arms by his side. The referee definitely made a lot of crucial decisions tonight and they’ve not gone our way.
« Whenever we put on an England shirt, we want to win every game. We’re unbeaten but a bit disappointed as because of circumstances tonight, we haven’t got a win.
« We feel we should come to a place like this in North Macedonia and get a win. The ref and the pitch weren’t up to standards. But it is what it is. »
Analysis: England need to find way to win again
Sky Sports News’ Rob Dorsett at the Todor Proeski National Arena:
« That was pretty scary in Skopje. England were poor, as they were three nights ago, and didn’t have the quality or the character to force a win against the side they hammered 7-0 just five months ago.
« There was mitigation for England tonight – the pitch was poor, which didn’t promote any fluidity. The refereeing was worse, which cost England at key moments.
« But, if England have aspirations to win the Euros next summer, which they do, they must be better when things don’t go their way. The best teams find a way to win, and England couldn’t manage that in Skopje.
« Southgate will be criticised – with some justification – for keeping Harry Kane on the bench for most of the game. The fact that he forced the equaliser within seconds of coming on, speaks volumes. Ollie Watkins struggled to make an impact.
« All in all, that’s a very disappointing end to the 2023 international calendar for England, who were poor in both matches against the minnows of Malta and North Macedonia. England managed just one goal of their own in both matches – the other two were own goals.
« Quite simply, when England don’t have Jude Bellingham, they look a little one-paced and lacking in inspiration. And that’s worrying.
« Perhaps the best you can say is that England remain unbeaten in qualifying, and this dour draw doesn’t make any difference to the campaign as a whole. It’s not much, but it’s something. »
Southgate hails Lewis | ‘I’ve got lots of players to look at’
England manager Southgate praised the display of England new boy Lewis after recovering from his « really, really harsh » setback by conceding the contentious first-half penalty.
« He was excellent, his composure with the ball, » Southgate told Channel 4. « The fact he did respond as he did to that setback, which was really, really harsh, was excellent. »
But Southgate’s attention turns to whether Lewis will make the squad amongst some selection dilemmas between now and May.
Unlike the 26-player squad at the World Cup, Southgate can only pick 23 for the European Championships in Germany and the England head coach admits he has a number of players to look at before the summer.
« The next exciting bit is the draw in December, » he added. « We will see exactly what the path looks like but there’s a lot of players to keep an eye on.
« Trent again has done an excellent job in midfield, Rico and Cole Palmer coming in as well.
« You can’t quite take the gambles you’ve had in the last couple of squads, we knew a couple might miss the group and take extra.
« It [only being able to pick 23] changes the thinking on that. In the end, the best players become fairly evident when you make those selections. »
England’s Euro 2024 Qualifying campaign is now over and they are not back in action until March 23, when they host Brazil at Wembley – kick-off 7pm.
England’s final game before Gareth Southgate names his shortlist for Euro 2024 is against Belgium at Wembley three days later.