Saka stars as North Macedonia ship seven

Seeking to extend their unblemished start to 2024 European Championship qualification to four matches – after most recently emerging victorious as 4-0 winners over group outsiders Malta on Friday evening – England manager Gareth Southgate made three changes to his starting lineup. 2022/23 UEFA Champion League winners John Stones and Kyle Walker returned to the Three Lions’ starting eleven, alongside Marcus Rashford.

Meanwhile, in their pursuit of only a second-ever appearance at a major international tournament since their independence in 1991, North Macedonian Head Coach Blagoja Milevski made one enforced alteration with Darko Velkovski replacing the suspended Visar Musliu – after witnessing the Lynxes end up on the losing side against Ukraine (3-2) despite being 2-0 up at half-time last time out.

ENG: Pickford; Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw; Alexander-Arnold, Rice, Henderson; Saka, Rashford, Kane

MKD: Dimitrievski; Ashkovski, Ristovski, Zajkov, Velkovski; Alioski, Ademi, Bardhi, Elmas, Ashkovski; Trajkovski, Nestorovski

Seeking a fourth successive appearance at a European Championship finals, England flew out of the blocks at Old Trafford as Bukayo Saka tested the reflexes of visiting goalkeeper Stole Dimitrievski within the opening two minutes. Despite having only 35% of possession as the match approached the 25th-minute mark, North Macedonia seemed relatively happy to allow England to dictate the play on the ball, as Marcus Rashford continued to catch the eye as the Three Lions’ most likely goalscoring protagonist.

However, as you might have expected from the trajectory of the opening exchanges in Manchester, it was England who took the lead shortly before the half-hour mark as Luke Shaw’s marauding run-and-cross into the final third found its way to the feet of Harry Kane, who unsurprisingly dispatched the ball beyond Dimitrievski with aplomb. Determined to get his name onto the scoresheet after coming close earlier, Saka joined his captain on that honours list in the 39th minute, as Arsenal’s attacking asset venomously struck Kyle Walker’s assist into the roof of the net past Dimitrievski.

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Not satisfied with just the two goals before half time, England ruthlessly struck again six minutes later, as Kane capitalised on a breakdown in communication within the Macedonian defence that allowed Jordan Henderson to clinically put it on a plate for Rashford – to catalogue the accolade of finding the back of the net on the ground of his domestic club.

Already benefiting from his new forward role as a central midfielder, Trent Alexander-Arnold further enhanced his credentials of being named as the first individuals on Gareth Southgate’s team sheet, as the Liverpool man exquisitely lofted the ball from inside his own half into the midst of the Macedonian back-line, which Saka sensationally volleyed the ball into the top-corner past a beleaguered Dimitrievski.

However, that was not to be the end of the Macedonian number one’s woes, as only four minutes later, the Arsenal man emerged victorious from his one-on-one battle with the confidence-stricken goalkeeper to wheel away in celebration after netting his first-ever career hat-trick. That would then turn out to be his last participation of the night, as the Man of the Match departed to a standing ovation from the majority inside of Old Trafford.

With a plethora of substitutes now tasked with representing England for the rest of the contest, one of those alterations added a sixth in the 64th minute as Kalvin Phillips was in the right place at the right time to tap home from close range after the ball had fortuitously struck the foot of one of the Macedonian defenders. With the substitutes’ board ready to confirm his impending departure from the contest, Kane made no mistake from the penalty spot for his 50th goal as England captain following Egzon Bejtulai’s clumsy foul on John Stones.

That turned out to be the final moment of Macedonia’s misery in Manchester, as the victory consolidated England’s position at the summit of Group C, with the Three Lions six points ahead of Ukraine as the 2024 European Championship qualification campaign now takes a three-month break. Meanwhile, North Macedonia remain in third position – three points adrift of Serhiy Rebrov’s side – after falling to their heaviest-ever defeat since independence.

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