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Kane spares England blushes

Captain’s arrival forces own goal

By Jason Burt CHIEF FOOTBALL CORRESPONDENT at Todor Proeski Arena, Skopje

North Macedonia 1

Bardhi 41

England 1

Atanasov 59 og

If England have any hope of winning the European Championship next summer then they must pray that their captain stays fit.

It was Pep Guardiola who labelled Tottenham Hotspur the “Harry Kane team”, and although that caused offence at the time, it is indisputable that, despite their riches of talent, and the absence of the also priceless Jude Bellingham, England are undeniably still the Harry Kane team.

Goodness, how they laboured at times, and despite dominating against a highly committed but relatively limited North Macedonia – brushed aside 7-0 last June at Old Trafford, lest it be forgotten – until Kane stepped off the substitutes’ bench. Precisely 42 seconds later, he forced England’s equalising goal from a corner and transformed the mood.

That was some impact even if, ultimately, the Bayern Munich striker could not do enough to win the game. But at least Kane saved it by attacking the ball and panicking defender Jani Atanasov who inadvertently flicked it off his shoulder and into his own net.

In truth, it was not a good night for Ollie Watkins, who started instead of Kane, and should really be well-placed to deputise for him but was unconvincing. Neither Callum Wilson nor Dominic Calvertlewin have seized their chances, or can stay fit enough, so maybe Ivan Toney comes even more into the reckoning when he returns from his ban for breaching betting rules in January.

It was the first time in more than two years, since October 2021, that Kane had not started a competitive match for England, and how he will have looked on hungrily as Watkins wasted two early chances – failing to connect properly with a closerange shot and miscuing a free header – and the Aston Villa striker had not even taken his seat on the bench before Kane saved the day.

And, so, Watkins, despite Gareth Southgate’s protestations, disappointed, but he was not alone as England completed their qualification campaign in something of a drab fashion, even if they battled against a poor referee, a hard and difficult pitch and a packed and uncompromising North Macedonian defence.

Even so, Trent Alexander-arnold’s extended audition for a midfield role fell flat, Jack Grealish was ineffective and Harry Maguire was poor in possession and unsure out of it.

There were shining lights beyond Kane and, also, Marc Guehi, and not least Rico Lewis, who celebrates his 19th birthday today, making his debut at left-back and moving immediately into midfield at kick-off. While the Manchester City defender was hugely unfortunate to concede a first-half penalty, after a highly-contentious Var review, he did not let it affect an assured performance.

“He was excellent,” Southgate argued. “His performance and then his reaction at what I know must have been a disappointment for him. His composure with the ball was outstanding. Great resilience but we didn’t feel he had anything to come back from.”

While Lewis was harshly punished after his hand brushed against the face of striker Bojan Miovski as he headed clear – with Enis Bardhi slamming home the rebound when Jordan Pickford saved his penalty – England were already lucky not to have conceded another spot kick as Southgate acknowledged.

“I didn’t think it was a penalty,” he said, before adding: “The one before might have been, so maybe that evened itself out.”

Pressed on the penalty given, Southgate added: “I have zero to say about it, which probably tells you everything.”

True, but, as he said, he knows Maguire got away with one after giving the ball away carelessly and then falling awkwardly into Elif Elmas inside the area. It somehow went unpunished and it was an undoubted let-off for England and for Maguire, and it was also exactly the kind of mistake they cannot afford to make in Germany next year.

England have made light work of reaching the Euros, witness the struggles of the holders Italy to get through on goal difference in the same group, something that should not be overlooked, and Southgate was understandably keen to make that point. “The really big results were in March, winning in Italy and the result against Ukraine,” he rightly stated, although his claim that the performance here was “good” really lacked objective evidence. “If you said at the start of the campaign, we would be eight wins and two draws, it would be a pretty good record. We can now start to look forward,” Southgate added.

Fair enough. But having hoped to come through unscathed, on a dodgy pitch, in terms of injury, England did suffer from a little wounded pride and it is becoming a concern as to how few chances they are creating.

Of course, they did not lose and, again, that should not be overlooked, and coming back away from home and following the penalty showed resilience but, as against Malta last Friday when they also benefitted from an own goal, it was not great.

There was more to agree with in Southgate’s claim that England had already bought themselves the time to experiment a little, and give minutes to virtually the whole of the squad during these pair of qualifiers, but did any of those experiments really work?

Maybe it would have been easier had Watkins taken that headed chance, in particular, or if a shot by Declan Rice had rebounded off the post and into the goal rather than back out before England fell behind. Instead, despite their dominance, they allowed North Macedonia back into the game and they really cannot do that against better teams and if they are to triumph at the Euros. And, in the biggest lesson that was reinforced, neither can they afford to be without Kane.

North Macedonia (3-5-2) Dimitrievski 6; Manev 7, Serafimov 7, Musliu 6; Dimoski 7 (Ashkovski 86), Alimi 6 (Kostadinov 75), Bardhi 7, Atanasov 5 (Elezi 90+1), Alioski 7; Miovski 5 (Ristovski 75), Elmas 7. Booked Elmas.

England (4-2-3-1) Pickford 6; Walker 5, Maguire 5, Guehi 6, Lewis 6; Alexander-arnold 5 (Phillips 84), Rice 5; Saka 6 (Palmer 84), Foden 6, Grealish 6 (Rashford 84); Watkins 5 (Kane 58). Booked Lewis, Alexander-arnold.

Referee Filip Glova (Slovakia).

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