3-1 defeat in Skopje doesn't tell the full story.
Macedonia 3-1 England
UEFA Futsal Euro 2012
Preliminary Qualifying Round
21 January 2011
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By Simon Walker in Skopje
England’s quest to qualify for the first time in their short Futsal history to the main rounds of the UEFA Futsal Championships were dealt a cruel blow in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia. However, the England squad can count themselves unlucky that they didn’t start their European campaign on a more positive note after dominating much of the game and playing some outstanding Futsal.
England had recently visited Skopje to play Macedonia in two friendly internationals in October, where England suffered heavy defeats to their hosts (4-0 and 5-1). Although England could cite mitigating circumstances during these autumn fixtures, with the Macedonian players being in the midst of their domestic season, whilst the English players hadn’t played competitively since July with The FA National Futsal League not kicking-off until November. And this was reinforced by one of the most impressive displays from an English Futsal team.
Pete Sturgess’ men started this match at an electrifying pace, with punchy, precise passing and fluid movement that unsettled the Macedonians. The Macedonian team were in for a rude awakening if following their convincing victories in the autumn they thought that this was going to be a walk in the park. England controlled the tempo and the game for the opening five minutes, with Macedonia camped in their own-half and struggling to get possession. England had good chances to capitalise on this dominance, with clever inter-play particularly between Luke Ballinger, Rob Ursell and Nick Colley, leading to England hitting the post and Todorovski in the Macedonian goal making some important saves.
The Macedonians are a strong side, and as the half rolled on they began to exert more influence over the game and demonstrate why they are ranked over 30 places above England in the FIFA World Rankings. However, James Dalton in the England goal had little concerns up until mid-way through the half when a kick-in near the English goal led to Colley giving away a rather rash free-kick in a dangerous location. England had conceded from a similar position against the Macedonians during the autumn internationals, and so they knew exactly what was coming.
Darko Rangotov, Macedonia’s strong number nine crashed the ball goalwards at some force, and similar to the autumn, the English wall disintegrated weakly allowing the ball to penetrate and leaving Dalton with little chance. The goal went against the run-of-play, and Macedonia capitalised on a somewhat shell-shocked England and began to build momentum, particularly through the excellence of Jovanovski who was at the centre of all their moves. England were under serious pressure and were desperately trying to cling on, Dalton making some good saves and the English defensive unit working effectively with Colley at the fore.
England started the second half positively, trying to force the play and dictate the rhythms of the game. But the Macedonians were strong defensively in shutting down the forward pass to England’s top-man. Thomas Obasi, Ursell and Ballinger all failed in the opening exchanges of the second period to hold the ball effectively in the forward positions, which prevented England from establishing a strong attacking platform and becoming frustrated began to take risks in search of the equaliser. An exciting three man attack from England which resulted in a good shot from Ursell and smart save from Todorovski, left England exposed at the back which the Macedonian goalkeeper exploited with a quick throw that allowed Leveski to head in on Dalton’s goal and punish the English.
The large Macedonian crowd were jubilant; the feeling around Skopje’s old arena was that this goal sealed the game. And it might well have done against previous English teams who would have capitulated at this point. This team however demonstrated immense character to pick themselves up, trust in their abilities and Sturgess’ coaching to begin playing a level of Futsal that has been rarely witnessed by an English squad. The players remained focused and began passing and moving slickly with real purpose. The Macedonian squad simply couldn’t live with the pace, energy and precision of the English. Wave after wave of attack fell on the well organised Macedonian defence. Agon Rexha had a long-range shot saved, Neil Morgan had a close range opportunity, Obasi, Jason Kilbride and Ursell all having half-chances.
Finally mid-way through the second half, following intricate work between Ursell and Morgan, Morgan finished off an excellent move with an overhead volley to give England real impetus. It was 2-1 and England were in the ascendency. Tension seeped into the stadium and through the Macedonian squad. The fans could see that the home team were tiring and beginning to wilt under the pressure from the English and tried their best to support their country by booing England and creating a hostile atmosphere. The English players rose above this and continued pressing and probing, with Morgan forcing the keeper to push on to the post, followed by Ballinger narrowly missing from a tight angle, and some clever work from Obasi so nearly flicking it past Todorovski.
But the clock was running down, and it was the unfortunate Obasi that finally sealed England’s fate. Already on a yellow card, Obasi had no choice but to stretch to try and prevent Naskovski heading directly in on goal after Ursell got caught in possession. Obasi caught the player and the referees had no choice but to give him a second yellow card and send him off. With England missing a player, yet still chasing the game with less than two minutes remaining it really proved to be mission impossible. Macedonia passed the ball around the England players who continued to chase wildly to regain possession. With three seconds remaining Rangotov again smashed the ball in to the top corner to finish the game for a relieved Macedonia.
The England team played with heart and pride, but also with real ability. The team deserved a draw from this game at the least, but international Futsal is not always so kind. This leaves an uphill struggle for the English team to qualify to the next stages, with only one team qualifying from a group of four. But Georgia beat Estonia 8-0 in the other match, suggesting that Macedonia might not necessarily have the group sealed just yet. But only a win will do now for England in their next match against Georgia and they require a slip-up by the Macedonians.