Saka hat-trick inspires ruthless England to demolition of North Macedonia

Saka hat-trick inspires ruthless England to demolition of North Macedonia

Bukayo Saka grabbed the ball, his ball, and kissed it. This Euro 2024 qualifier was only in the 51st minute but the England winger had completed a stunning hat-trick and so why wait for the traditional post‑match ritual? The only problem for Saka – and North Macedonia – was that he had to hand it back. For a while, at least.

The strange thing about this game was that England had rather laboured for the opening 29 minutes. It felt as if it could turn into one of those long nights. The way they set about the notion and dismantled it, together with the opposition, said everything about the poise and belief that Gareth Southgate has instilled.

England refused to panic. They continued to push high, to pen back North Macedonia. And then they found the new angles, Harry Kane’s opening goal the trigger for them to run riot – Saka especially. North Macedonia were reduced to wrecks and this, remember, was a team that had won away against Germany and, famously, Italy in qualification for the last World Cup.

England were too quick, too assured and they accelerated smoothly to a fourth win of this campaign in four attempts, bringing the season to the most satisfying of conclusions. It was certainly a far cry from the end of the previous one. Hungary at Molineux, anyone?

Saka was electric, his finishing lethal; the second surely one of the goals of his career. The pass from Trent Alexander-Arnold was eye‑catching enough, flighted first time up the inside right channel but what Saka did next took the breath.

Everything was perfect, starting with the first touch, a caress inside with the outside of his left boot on the half volley, which threw his marker. The second was with his chest to set himself. Then, after a bounce and a pause, there was the screaming finish into the far corner from the edge of the area.

It felt as though the crowd had most wanted to see Jack Grealish, who has plainly won even more hearts with his all-drinking, all‑dancing Manchester City treble-winning celebrations. His name drew the loudest pre-match cheer but he was only a substitute, coming on for Saka, embracing him as he did so, the game over.

“Jack Grealish, he’s still on the piss,” chanted the fans, and there would be something from him – a cross that broke for another substitute, Kalvin Phillips, to make it 6-0 with his first England goal.

There were eye-catching performances elsewhere. Marcus Rashford flickered early on and he scored the third. Kane added his second from the penalty spot for 7-0 – the prompt for Southgate to remove him; no hat-trick for the captain. Alexander‑Arnold was again polished as the right-sided No 8 after his excellent performance there in the 4-0 win against Malta on Friday. Saka, though, was the undoubted star.

Rashford was in the mood to run at his markers, to try his tricks and body swerves, but it was a short pass from him that opened up North Macedonia for the breakthrough.

The player that he exposed was the visiting captain, Stefan Ristovski who, moments earlier, had returned to the pitch after lengthy treatment to fix a bloody head wound – the result of a shuddering aerial collision with Kane.

Bukayo Saka hits his stunning strike for England’s fourth goal against North Macedonia
Saka hits his stunning strike for England’s fourth goal against North Macedonia. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Ristovski was dizzied further when Rashford fizzed a pass through his legs for Luke Shaw, who had burst up the inside left into the area. Southgate had needed a solution to prise open North Macedonia. Here it was. Shaw crossed low and, when the ball deflected slightly off Ezgjan Alioski, Kane was well placed to finish.

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North Macedonia had held their own. Now England turned the screw. Ruthlessly. It has been the longest of seasons but how Southgate’s players put it in until the last.

The second goal had echoes of the first, England interchanging slickly on the other flank to create a space in the area for Saka, the quick low pass inside coming from Kyle Walker. Saka had gone back to Alexander-Arnold, who moved it wide to Walker. Saka slammed his shot high into the roof of the net from an angle that was not entirely kind.

Suddenly England were rampant. Jordan Henderson had gone close at 1-0. Now Rashford played a one-two with Harry Maguire inside the area only to shoot too close to Stole Dimitrievski. Rashford would not be denied. It was Kane who won the ball high up, intercepting a pass from Ristovski that was meant for Darko Velkovski and turning it inside for Henderson. He pulled back; Rashford did the rest.

North Macedonia needed to shake their heads clear at half-time. And yet the punches continued to come their way upon the restart, Saka following his masterpiece with a neat low finish, which never looked in doubt from the moment that Kane released him.

Kane’s penalty would be awarded for a pull on John Stones by the North Macedonia substitute, Egzon Bejtulai, as he attacked an Alexander-Arnold corner, and it seemed out of mercy that the referee, Istvan Kovacs, blew for full-time bang on 90 minutes. All that remained was for Saka to locate the ball. This time it was for keeps.