Macedonia v England
Said to be our most difficult test in the group so far, Macedonia should have been handled better than they were last night. They were eager, pacy and passed well on the break and emerged in our half often enough to cause slight concern in the first half, more in the second. England had Rio Ferdinand back and looked very tight at the back with John Terry marshalling the defence. Owen Hargreaves was again holding in the centre and again broke down any possession to bring our attack once more into their half, things are looking up and up for the Bayern Munich man. Now we are seeing that which Sven Goran Eriksson failed to emanate.
The difference between Greece, Andorra and Macedonia was the Macedonians closed down on England much more and quicker than the previous opponents. They defended practically with all players in their half and the French referee Bertrand Layec constantly blew for pedantic moments that included contact ona Macedonian player who seemed content to go to ground. Peter Crouch was picked on and to consider Jermaine Defoe was penalised for shirt-pulling, Crouch should have had a blatant penalty when his was being tugged in desperation by Nikoke Noveski in the box. The standards of refereeing still being left open to many questions.
Phil Neville provided two of our best chances with his throw-ins. One found Crouch with a header the keeper touched over for safety, another found its way to Defoe and he missed wide with an overhead kick. A third found its way off Crouch to bounce to Defoe and his attempted volley went over. Macedonia caused a scare with minutes to go to the break when Velice Sumulikoski shot from outside the box but Terry blocked it well, with Paul Robinson positioned to possibly gather the shot anyway. Terry was Man Of The Match with another do-or-die display, while Frank Lampard had a low-key, quiet game by his standards, though he shot with his left as he ran towards the box to force Jane Nikoloski into a good right handed save off for a corner.
The goal came courtesy of Lampard and another Crouch finish as Macedonia failed to clear the ball from danger and it came down off Lampard in the box. Lampard then chased to hook the ball across goal and it came off Kikoloski to spin into the air, where Crouch then volleyed it off the underside of the crossbar and just over the line. Crouch could have had a second when he latched onto a loose ball just outside the box but his shot went wide. Terry couldn't get his foot around the ball enough when it came to him from a corner, a half volley that went wide. After then Macedonia came to attack and held England up well in our half. Artim Sakiri came on as the final substitution to spice the attack and he latched onto a loose ball with some ease to send a shot wide at the far post. A touching warning.
Aaron Lennon came on for Defoe, pushing England into 4-1-4-1, Hargreaves holding behind Lampard and Gerrard, but our increased midfield made little difference on the home side in quelling their enthusiasm for attacking. Sakiri sent a corner over that was headed away twice, but he collected the ball again to send yet another cross, which was headed by Ferdinand but came off Neville for Darko Tasevski to run on to by the touchline. Ferdinand came to block and Gerrard joined too but Ferdinand jumped and turned and Gerrard did not close down the gap to goal, therefore Tasevski squeezed the ball through, Robinson got a hand to it and Cole had two attempts before clearing it from danger. It just needed a foot stuck out to poke it in. Steve McClaren responded with Lampard off for Michael Carrick and then Crouch for Andy Johnson.
Three points and a performance that could have been sharper in both halves, particularly in the second, and not helped by a first half referee of little appreciation for 6ft 7in of height and a tendency of weakness from the home side in physical contact. Gerrard was booked for what looked to me a challenge for the ball within the rules but was judged to be a high foot, something which in the spirit of the second half was justifiable and not worthy of a booking. Before ushering Cole to take the throw, Mr Layec preferred to keep quiet and then book the Chelsea defender. Rules are there to help administer the game and urge good continuous play, not to throw like a weapon when apparent discrepancies occur. Mr Layec was not a speaking official and preferred to watch moments occur rather than step in to prevent or to encourage.
McClaren's first away game and the same aggregate from the 2003 fixture where England also scored in the second half. A restricted match from the more-opened two matches, a slightly difficult pitch in comparison to Old Trafford and with the scare by Sumulikoski, Sakiri and Tasevski, England rode their luck well. Gerrard has ingenuity from the right and enjoys a sprint but last night called for Lennon or Shaun Wright-Phillips with good bursting pace, and I also felt Stewart Downing was not consistent enough on the left.