Harry Kane provides England reminder as Ollie Watkins poor vs North Macedonia

In pictures: North Macedonia v England

Harry Kane saved England from heading off to Germany next summer on the back of a final Euro qualifying defeat. North Macedonia, beaten 7-0 at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign, had looked set to pull off one of the biggest upsets in England history but settled in the end for a 1-1 draw.

It was only within seconds of Kane coming on in the second half that the visitors were able to wipe out the opener from Enis Bardhi. The home captain had scored on the rebound after Jordan Pickford had saved his controversially-awarded penalty. For Gareth Southgate, it was the first time in eight attempts under his charge that England had come back to get anything from a game in which they had been losing at half-time.

Read Express Sport’s full analysis of the underwhelming result in Skopje below…

Thank heavens for Kane. If you want to be the best, you have got to play the best – and sorry Ollie Watkins or any of the other pretenders. That means the England captain. It took just 40 seconds for his presence to save Gareth Southgate’s side from an embarrassing final qualification defeat after coming on as a substitute.

TV replays suggested he may not have been the one to get a touch to Phil Foden’s corner – Jani Atamasov suffered that indignity – but it was the Bayern Munich striker’s pressure that ultimately forced the error. Certainly, if Southgate has pretensions of making England topping the world rankings some time soon, the message did not seem to get through to some of the rest of his players.

Debutant Rico Lewis scuffed a low shot towards the far corner in first-half injury time, otherwise this would have been the second match in a row when England had not mustered a single shot on target in the opening period. Against Malta and North Macedonia. England fans had been looking for a final flourish against a side who had been thrashed by seven by England earlier in the campaign – Kane scoring two of them.

Now Ollie Watkins had a rare chance to make a starting bid to claim the role of his Euro 2024 understudy – and rather fluffed his lines. He failed to connect with a near-post chance as early as the second minute and soon afterwards a completely free header in the six-yard box lacked both power and accuracy.

Declan Rice had hit the base of the post just before but this was another dominant England performance that was missing a cutting edge. In fairness, it all looked good. The way Rico Lewis began his international career in the dual roles of defensive left-back and marauding inside left at times has the mouth watering for campaigns beyond this one.

Phil Foden also had one of his better performances and Declan Rice completed most of the triangles. But it all went nowhere – and that was dangerous. Another Harry Maguire gaffe nearly ended in a North Macedonia penalty in the 23rd minute – a bizarre VAR decision in the 41st minute did.

Lewis just about caught Bojan Mioviski with a flailing arm as he landed from a header and there was barely an appeal. That did not stop VAR and one glance at the monitor for referee Filip Glova was enough. Jordan Pickford saved Enis Bardhi’s spot-kick but the North Macedonian skipper hammered in the rebound.

Two minutes after the restart, England thought they were level but Jack Grealish was just offside when he finished good work from Bukayo Saka. It was definitely going to take Kane. He came on for Watkins in the 58th minute with England waiting to take a corner.

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Foden cross, Kane stooped with the defender. The ball bobbled into the corner of the net. This time nobody was chalking it off. Obviously, England pressed for a winner with Kane sparking a good deal more movement around the North Macedonia defence.

But the home side were not without their chances and in the end England were happy to reach the end of 2023 unbeaten if not quite firing on all the cylinders they will need to fire themselves to the top of the world.

England player ratings vs North Macedonia

Jordan Pickford 6

On a quiet night he saved a penalty out of nowhere and then was unlucky for the rebound to get fired in.

Kyle Walker 6

Very much a leader on the pitch for a young England side but his pace wider might have been better.

Marc Guehi 7

Continues to look unflustered and capable in defence and giving Southgate a very real starting option.

Harry Maguire 5

A disastrous give-away and nearly conceded a penalty when making amends – England need a firmer foundation.

Rico Lewis 8

Ludicrously unlucky for the penalty having taken to his dual role with impressive energy and understanding.

Trent Alexander-Arnold 7

Great shot on the stroke of half-time and as busy as anybody in probing the defence but could not find magic.

Declan Rice 7

Kept England in possession by always offering an out-ball and central to England’s dominance.

Bukayo Saka 6

A couple of moments when he looked dangerous but England did not get him on the ball nearly enough.

Phil Foden 7

Seemed to relish more of a free role across the front line and was busy in anything England produced.

Jack Grealish 6

Another disappointing performance when England needed somebody to lift them. A frustrated figure.

Ollie Watkins 4

Oh dear. There are not many chances for a no. 9 to stake a claim as Kane’s understudy and he rather fluffed his.


Harry Kane (Watkins 58) 7

Spared England’s blushes off the bench.

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