England toiled to a 1-1 draw in North Macedonia as their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign came to a lacklustre close.
Gareth Southgate’s side secured qualification to next summer’s finals in Germany last month and a forgettable draw in Skopje was at least enough to confirm them among the top seeds for December’s draw.
Debutant Rico Lewis endured a night to forget at the Tose Proeski Arena as he conceded a controversial first-half penalty which Jordan Pickford saved before Enis Bardhi turned home the rebound.
Captain Harry Kane came off the bench and played a part in the leveller as Jani Atanasov scored an own goal but England failed to find a winner.
England showed six changes from the team that limped to a 2-0 win over Malta on Friday night as Kyle Walker captained his country for the first time – but it was another disjointed display from a team Southgate is aiming to lead to the top of the world rankings.
Declan Rice was among those to come back into the starting line-up but, having called on England to conclude their unbeaten 2023 with a “bang” it instead ended with a whimper.
England were as toothless in the first half as they had been in the drab victory over Malta on Friday night, although Rice did come close to opening the scoring with a low strike that cannoned off the base of the post.
A tame header from Ollie Watkins followed before the hosts started to get a foothold, mainly due to England’s own poor defending.
Midway through the half and Harry Maguire gifted possession to Bojan Miovski, who slipped in Eljif Elmas.
Manchester United defender Maguire then seemed to barge Elmas off the ball inside the box but no penalty was forthcoming despite the protestations of the home side.
However, Macedonia would be awarded a penalty 10 minutes before the break, Lewis’ stray hand catching Miovski as he attempted to head clear, with referee Filip Glova pointing to the spot after consulting his pitchside VAR monitor.
Pickford made a fine stop to keep out Bardhi’s spot-kick but the Macedonia skipper was alive enough to turn home the rebound.
England had been as blunt as the side that toiled against Malta three days ago and it took until first-half stoppage time for the visitors to have a shot on target, albeit a tame effort from Lewis.
Trent Alexander-Arnold then stung the palms of Stole Dimitrievski and, in the last action of the half, England were left calling for a penalty of their own as Maguire stooped to meet the resulting corner and was caught by Elmas’ boot – this time, though, Glova was unmoved.
England thought they were level less than two minutes after the restart but Jack Grealish saw a close-range finish ruled out for offside following another lengthy VAR check.
Watkins, given a chance to once again show he has the capabilities to be the back-up to Kane at the Euros, had an ineffectual evening and was replaced by the skipper for the final quarter of the contest.
Kane – who was missing from the starting XI of a competitive England game for the first time in over two years – was immediately involved, his run to meet Phil Foden’s corner saw him tracked by Atanasov, who inadvertently deflected the set-piece into his own goal.
Southgate shuffled his pack as Marcus Rashford, Cole Palmer and Kalvin Phillips came on in the closing stages but, other than a wayward free-kick from the former, there were no real chances for England to seal victory.
Macedonia head coach Blagoja Milevski had said on the eve of the contest that his side would show a “new face” from the one thrashed 7-0 at Old Trafford in June and they certainly put England’s nose out of joint here.
Southgate will call for an improved performance in the two March friendlies when Brazil and Belgium visit Wembley but it was ultimately another successful, and unbeaten, qualification campaign under the 53-year-old.
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