LONDON — Harry Kane and Bukayo Saka scored first-half goals as England beat Ukraine 2-0 at Wembley on Sunday to take control of Euro 2024 qualifying Group C.
Kane broke the deadlock on 37 minutes with his 55th England goal as he steered home Saka’s clever right-wing cross before the Arsenal winger doubled the advantage with a sublime effort from outside the box. Kane received a Golden Boot from Football Association chair Debbie Hewitt in a pre-match presentation to mark becoming England’s all-time top goal scorer on an emotional afternoon at Wembley as Ukraine’s ongoing war effort was recognised with both sets of players calling for peace.
The visitors were unable to trouble England, however, failing to register a single shot on target as Gareth Southgate’s side maintained a 100% start to Group C.
1. England take control of tricky group
Group C looked a challenging prospect on paper given the presence of the defending European champions (Italy), the highest-rank team in Pot 3 (Ukraine) and North Macedonia, who beat Italy in a World Cup playoff last year. Yet England backed up an impressive win in Naples on Thursday with a comfortable afternoon at Wembley, recovering from a slow start to score twice in four minutes to effectively end this as a contest by half-time.
There is never a guarantee that an international side will pick themselves up and go again after such an agonising tournament exit like the one England suffered in Qatar, losing to France despite spells as the better team and Kane missing a penalty that would have probably taken the tie into extra-time. Often, a change of manager Is called for. The FA wanted Southgate to stay on after the World Cup but he questioned his position in part out of a concern his presence was an obstacle to further progress. This first camp back together is proof the players remain united behind him and already they can have one eye on next summer’s Euro 2024 finals in Germany.
There should be no complacency but a June double-header comprising Malta away and North Macedonia at home represents an excellent chance to sign off for the season with the maximum 12 points, a tally that will go a long way to securing one of the two top spots needed to qualify.
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2. Saka settles one debate …
It feels strange now to suggest that not that long ago, Saka’s place in England’s starting lineup was not a given. Southgate’s loyalty to Raheem Sterling meant that Saka was one of several players vying for one attacking position alongside Kane, but these days the 21-year-old is now one of the first names on Southgate’s teamsheet.
England were ponderous in possession early on here against a well-organised side, but as they increased the tempo, Ukraine struggled to cope and Saka was the man who made them pay. Kane’s clever pass out to Saka was rewarded with a sublime cross that the England captain converted at the far post for his 55th England goal. Saka then turned smartly and curled home a stunning 40th-minute effort for his seventh goal in his past 12 England starts. In fact, he is starting to rack up some seriously impressive statistics: aged 21 years and 202 days, Saka has now scored eight goals for England — only Dixie Dean (16), Jimmy Greaves (16), Wayne Rooney (12) and Michael Owen (10) scored more at the same age. Saka has ten goal involvements (seven goals, three assists) in his past 16 appearances.
Arsenal are relying on Saka to help lead their Premier League title charge and he is approaching the same influential status for England. Given what happened to him at the delayed Euro 2020 final less than two years ago — missing a penalty in the final and receiving racist online abuse as a result — the remarkable transformation is testament to his mental strength.
3. … While Maddison and Grealish battle on the opposite flank
The dual absences of Sterling and Marcus Rashford in this camp, plus Phil Foden’s withdrawal earlier on Sunday after having his appendix removed, created a real opportunity across these two games for Jack Grealish and James Maddison to stake a claim for the left-wing position in Southgate’s preferred 4-3-3 shape.
Grealish was largely ineffective against Italy, missing a glorious chance at 2-0 in a manner that infuriated his manager — trying a high-risk finish with the outside of his boot when a side-foot would have been the higher-percentage approach. Maddison was handed his first ever England start against Ukraine — perhaps late in the day given the timing of Foden’s withdrawal — and looked effective without showing the same penetration as Saka.
Maddison’s influence may not have been as eye-catching, but he was substituted four minutes from time having created five chances, the most by a player in his full England debut since Theo Walcott vs. Andorra in September 2008 (six). It is difficult to argue with that statistic in isolation. yet the likelihood is that Rashford and, probably, Sterling remain further advanced in the pecking order. Maximising the opportunities this number of attacking options provides remains a welcome conundrum for Southgate but one, on the left side at least, he is arguably no nearer to solving.
Best and worst performers
BEST: Bukayo Saka, England. England needed a first-half spark and Saka provided it. A goal and an assist from the Arsenal winger put the home side in control.
BEST: Harry Kane, England. Another efficient display, hitting the target with three of his four shots and ending with a perfect 100% pass completion rate (12 from 12).
BEST: Ben Chilwell, England. Deputised impressively for Luke Shaw, providing several threatening moments down the left.
WORST: Mykhailo Mudryk, Ukraine. Completed 14 of his 20 passes and was easily marshalled by Kyle Walker. Substituted on 61 minutes.
WORST: Vitalii Mykolenko, Ukraine. Unable to cope with Saka’s movement and was hauled off just after the hour mark.
WORST: Taras Stepanenko, Ukraine. Won just 28.6% of his duels and only 33.3% of his tackles.
Highlights and notable moments
Creates one goal and then scores this beauty himself. All in a day’s work for Saka.
You can only admire brilliance when it comes in the form of a finish from Bukayo Saka 🏴 pic.twitter.com/meu2FmLix2
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) March 26, 2023
After the match: What the players/managers said
Jude Bellingham: “It feels like we have a really good atmosphere in the changing room. We want to express ourselves but there’s a side of us with a bit of nastiness. We need to cover all sides of the game and I think we’re doing that really well at the moment.”
Southgate: “Really pleased, really pleased with the performance today. In Italy, we played very well with the ball in the first half. In the second half, we conceded possession cheaply but had to show resilience. We made a difficult game look straightforward. The way in was either through James Maddison or Bukayo Saka. We stuck to the task really well.”
Key stats (provided by ESPN Stats & Information research)
– Kane has now scored 17 career goals in 15 European Championship qualifying games.
– Kane is the first player in history to score in 10 straight European Championship qualifiers.
England: The Three Lions will be back to Euro 2024 qualifying on June 16, when they travel to Attard for a date with Malta.
Ukraine: Ukraine will next be in action on June 16 as well, with a European Championship qualifier of their own at North Macedonia.