On paper this result looks bad. On the pitch it looked even worse. This despite England deploying a refreshingly balanced side and scoring two goals. It should have been enough to beat any side but the Macedonian's were not the easy touch their record suggested. They scored two fortuitous strikes of their own, taking the lead on both occasions. England created enough clear chances to win 6-0, yet didn't take them. To compound that failing they also gave away two of the daftest goals you will ever see and lost their way tactically. Sol Campbell made a dreadful error, David Seaman has another
moment for his personal nightmare and Alan Smith was sent off. So maybe not everything was unexpected. The game does not
make for a nice footnote to the International year.
Watching coaches, fearful of England's rise and hearing of a generation of players reaching their peak will not have a clue of which England they might face. More worryingly, neither do the management team. Yet from the kick off there was great attacking verve, which promised much. Gerrard spraying the ball around, Scholes nipping and darting in his restored central role; Beckham swinging in those crosses and best of all real threat down the left with Cole and Bridge interchanging and whipping in a succession of quality crosses. Then lightening struck Sakiri curling the ball in, directly from a corner. Poor David Seaman, it is a hazard of the job for a goalkeeper to suffer the odd freak goal. But fate has decreed that Seaman only suffer his problems in high profile games and have to live with the consequences. He wasn't at fault for Ronaldinho's goal in the summer and he wasn't at fault last night. Possibly one in a hundred attempts to curl the ball in from a corner will be successful that is why it doesn't happen, it is not even attempted very often. Yet last night, possibly inspired by those that had gone before, Sakiri tried it. After his floater had gone in I don't know who was more surprised, Seaman or the goalscorer.
With Seaman already suffering from 'dodgy keeper' chants England stirred themselves, conjuring up a wonderful equaliser inside 3 minutes. Beckham controlled an astute ball from Scholes on his chest and with the keeper retreating coolly lobbed the ball over him. With Beckham celebrating in his usual exuberant style, the feeling was that the Macedonians were there for the beating. Straight away Bridge broke down the left and curled in a teasing cross to the far post. Sadly both forwards Owen and Smith had attacked the near side and the chance went. England continued to play football, playing the ball around confidently. Gerrard played the ball out to the right to Beckham, only to find that the captain had moved inside. The Macedonian's broke through Sakiri who hit a weak pass into the area. Sol Campbell stretched to clear and succeeded only in laying the ball off neatly to Trijanov who struck a superb shot, curling into the net. Seaman was left unsighted and unprotected by his clubmate and for the second time he found himself picking the ball out of the goal.
Trijanov's goal reminded me of the one Thomas Rekdahl struck for Norway during the Taylor years, fate seeming to drop a ball perfectly into the path of player who promptly hits the shot of a lifetime. It seems cruel to say it, but like a reverse Sampson, the longer Seaman's hair gets, the weaker he appears. He is displaying none of the invincibility that Peter Shilton had in his latter years.
Despite the scoreline, England had played well and they carried on throughout the first half, equalising after continued pressure from a corner caused the ball to drop to Gerrard 18 yards out. The Liverpool player struck a technically perfect volley to equalise and England's fortunes appeared to have turned.
From that point on the game settled into a pattern. England's creating chance after chance and contriving to miss them. Not one of them fell to Michael Owen without the linesman pulling him up, the rest were a litany of absurd goalmouth scrambles, sliced shots and improbable goaline clearances. In response the Macedonianís only offered the occasional counter attack. These always seemed to peter out into an optimistic long-range shot; clearly the coach had felt there was a weakness to be exploited. This tactic was aided by the crowd who continued to ooh and ahh theatrically every time the ball neared the England 'keeper. Alan Smith was booked for a ruthlessly competitive challenge and weirdly Beckham saw yellow after a bizarre cameo during a Macedonianís throw in. Only the referee, Mr Ibanez, seemed to have a clear understanding of the incident.
It seemed that England just had to keep their shape and keep on playing and goals would come but Sven thought differently. On 53 minutes Butt replaced the lame Gerrard, stifling a little creativity, but no desperate damage seemed to have been done. Then on 58 minutes Sven decided to withdraw Wayne Bridge and add Vassell to the attack. This served to restrict England's options from wide, crowding the forward line and even worse causing Paul Scholes to withdraw into a more defensive central role. The Macedonianís defended for their lives, often keeping 8 players behind the ball and wasting a phenomenal amount of time with play acting. They had the scent of a famous result in mind and were not to be easily denied - despite riding their luck on more than one occasion. England finished the game still missing chances, the front three becoming 'keystone cops' strikers, running into the same spaces and catching each other offside. It was a tactically shapeless mess, players losing composure and snatching at chances or over hitting crosses. The misery was compounded when Alan Smith gained his second yellow card for unnecessarily clattering a defender on the touchline.
There will be tabloid acres written and the futures of Sven Goran Eriksson and David Seaman will surely be questioned.
But England's demise will (as always) be over stated. This group was always going to come down to the results against Turkey and a draw against Macedonia does not change that. Those games are not so much about the three points to be gained, as the three points the opposition are denied. The two goals conceded were both daft, the sort of things that can, but rarely do, happen. Tonight they just happened to England. If one of the seven clear-cut second half chances had gone in we would have enjoyed a fortunate victory and been happy (Seaman aside). It worth bearing in mind that when qualifying for the 2000 tournament we only had 1 point from 2 games so all is not lost by any means.
The real tragedy is that this England line up was the best balanced in years. Pretty much at full strength (Rio Ferdinand
for Woodgate) the side played well. What will be remembered will be Sakiri's goal not Bridge's energetic wing play. Sven must hold on to the positive throughout the long winter and ignore the graceless sniping that will doubtless follow.
Seaman, G Neville, Campbell, Woodgate, A Cole, Beckham, Gerrard (Butt 56 mins), Scholes, Bridge (Vassell 59 mins), Owen, Smith.
Subs Not Used: Mills, James, Southgate, Hargreaves, Lampard. (Full Squad)
Petar Milosevski, Popov, Petrov, Sedloski, Vasoski, Sumulioski, Trajanov (Stojanovski 90 mins), Aleksander Mitrevski, Toleski (Pandev 62 mins), Sakiri, Grozdanovski.
Subs Not Used: Nikoloski, Grncarov, Vajs, Ignator, Nacevski.
England Goals: Beckham (14 mins), Gerrard (36 mins)
FYR Macedonia Goals: Sakiri (11 mins), Trajanov (25 mins)
England Dismissal: Smith (90 mins)
England Cautions: Beckham, Smith
FYR Macedonia Caution: Vasoski
Referee: Arturo Dauden Ibanez (Spain)