England come from behind twice for a 2-2 draw at St Mary's
England 2-2 FYR Macedonia
UEFA European Championship
Group 7 Qualifier
St Mary's, Southampton
England come from behind twice to earn a point in a dramatic encounter on the South Coast.
After the heroics of Slovakia, there was a degree of deflation at St Mary's on Wednesday night as Macedonia stunned England with two goals in the first 25 minutes to take a priceless point back home. In fact England didn't play that badly.
The lions once again showed fight and character to equalise twice but, just when they needed to go up that final gear at the end [as they had done so effectively in Bratislava], there was not quite enough left in the tank to get them to their desired destination of another three points.
With group rivals Turkey firing five past Liechtenstein, it looks as though Sven will once again need to rustle up one of his special results if England are to earn automatic qualification for the finals in Portugal in 2004.
And it had all started so well...before the game began that is. The news that home hero Wayne Bridge had been included in the starting line-up ensured that the atmosphere in this splendid new stadium was truly inspiring.
Unfortunately it inspired Macedonia just as much as England. Not only did they successfully smother England with a composed start, they even had the audacity to take the lead - direct from a corner. Artim Sakiri stunned the whole stadium when his vicious 10th minute corner from the right curled and swirled its way into the top corner of England's goal. David Seaman could not react in time and suddenly England were playing catch-up. Not for long though.
Sven's men responded wonderfully well, levelling almost immediately. Scholes, who proved in Slovakia that he is too valuable in the centre to be sacrificed out wide, chipped forward to find Beckham's incisive dash through the centre. Becks controlled the ball expertly with his chest and had the composure to let the ball settle before clipping it exquisitely over the advancing Milosevski.
With Becks back in the groove and the crowd once again lifted, it was tempting to think that Macedonia's electric start had only been the momentary shock that was needed to bring England to life. Tempting but wrong all the same.
On 25 minutes, a fairly innocuous low ball was played into the England penalty area and, though Sol was first there, he did not make good contact with his clearance, scraping the ball out to Trajanov who was lurking on the edge of the area. The midfielder found the perfect finish to curl the ball past Seaman and once again leave St. Mary's speechless.
The word inside the England camp this week has been that the visitors had looked highly impressive at times against Turkey on Saturday but no one could have expected Nikola Ilievski's side to strike twice inside the game's opening half hour. Credit to England, they once again responded positively, creating a succession of clear chances.
Scholes should probably have shot when clean through instead of trying to find Owen for a picture goal, while Becks would have better served looking for Michael when he went through rather than firing in one of his dipping specials.
When Scholes blazed over after Becks had set him up having won the ball brilliantly on the touchline, we were beginning to think it might be one of those evenings. Then Steven Gerrard stepped forward.
After a corner on the half hour had been cleared, Scholes picked out Beckham with a high looper out to the left hand touchline. Becks' header came out to Gerrard on the edge of the area and the Liverpool man knew exactly what he wanted to do with it.
He took one touch before walloping the ball home. It almost tore the net open. Stevie has not scored for England since a certain night in Munich but he proved once again that there are few cleaner strikers of the ball in the game. When he hits the ball, it stays hit.
Back on level terms, England were expected to go on and secure the expected victory but the opening few minutes of the second half showed that the Macedonians had no intention of surrendering the points.
When Sakiri burst through on 51 minutes it took a solid Seaman save to prevent the underdogs from taking the lead for the third time in the game. A minute later, Steven Gerrard saw his lob agonisingly go just over the bar. More agonising for him still was the injury he picked up three minutes later stretching for a loose ball.
His loss was a cruel blow but Sven, fresh from his tactical masterstroke at half-time on Saturday, looked to offset the damage by bringing on Vassell to make three upfront ahead of a tight central trio on Man United men Butt, Beckham and Scholes in midfield.
England, ably assisted by the crowd, worked hard to get back into the game and Jonathan Woodgate must have thought he'd scored when he stabbed the ball towards goal from seven yards out following a Becks corner. Only a last ditch Popov clearance kept the ball out.
As the match wore on and we chased the elusive victory, England's play became a little more disjointed and, had it not been for the excellence of Sol Campbell and Gary Neville at the back, it could easily have been the visitors who might have snatched a third.
When England got a free-kick in Beckham range with only minutes left on the clock, the crowd thought that their prayers had been answered but not even Becks has a divine right to score every time.
With Macedonia eating up the remaining time with substitutions and apparently feigned injuries, the searing pace of Owen and Vassell opened up the opposition one last time but, when the Villa man found Smith six yards out, his acrobatic effort drove straight into Milosevski's grateful open arms.
The time-wasting of the visitors was infuriating, not least for Alan Smith who saw red in injury time for a second caution following a late lunge, but it's difficult to blame the Macedonians for doing everything within their powers to protect what they knew would be a historic result for their nation.
The truth of the matter is that they should not have been allowed to earn themselves a result to protect. We should not get carried away - this is a disappointment rather than a disaster. What it means is that we will have to make up for it somewhere further along the qualification line.
Earlier in the week Tord Grip made the rather prophetic observation that there is simply no way of predicting the outcome of international football matches these days.
Tonight Macedonia muddied those waters still further.
From Daniel Freedman at St Mary's.
ENGLAND: 1 David Seaman, 2 Gary Neville, 3 Ashley Cole, 4 Steven Gerrard (Nicky Butt 56), 5 Jonathan Woodgate, 6 Sol Campbell, 7 David Beckham (c), 8 Paul Scholes, 9 Alan Smith, 10 Michael Owen, 11 Wayne Bridge (Darius Vassell 60)
SUBS: 12 Danny Mills, 13 David James, 14 Gareth Southgate, 15 Owen Hargreaves, 16 Nicky Butt, 17 Frank Lampard, 18 Darius Vassell
ENGLAND: 1 Petar Milosevski, 2 Robert Popov, 3 Robert Petrov, 4 Goce Sedloski (c), 5 Aleksandar Vasoski, 6 Velice Sumulikoski, 7 Vanco Trajanov (Milan Stojanovski 93), 8 Aleksandar Mitreski, 9 Goce Toleski (Goran Pandev 63), 10 Artim Sakiri, 11 Vlatko Grozdanovski
SUBS: 12 Jane Nikoloski, 13 Boban Grncarov, 14 Miroslav Vajs, 15 Goran Pandev, 16 Milan Stojanovski, 17 Stojan Ignatov, 18 Dragan Nacevski