“England is in the top [bracket].” Those were the words of North Macedonia’s manager Kiril Izov as he spoke to EnglandFootball.org ahead of the first qualifier on the long road to the 2023 World Cup. Other than some wayward finishing, Sarina Wiegman’s first match in charge was a night in which England looked every bit a side in the top bracket. The caveat is of course that their opponents are one of international football’s minnows — at least in the women’s game — and so the Lionesses were always expected to canter to a comfortable victory.
This was England’s first match since their friendly defeats to France and Canada in early April. Even more significantly, it was a first chance to express themselves in front of fans since their ill-fated SheBelieves Cup campaign of March 2020. England had waited patiently to welcome them back. The fans had waited impatiently to be allowed back. Here they were, in fine voice, as England put a glut of goals past their Balkan rivals under the peaceful Southampton sunset.
But it certainly didn’t look like being the predicted hatful for a good long while. Leah Williamson was England’s captain on the night, skippering her country for the first time. And she made the most of being deployed in midfield rather than in her usual centre-back spot. Following strong work from Rachel Daly to dispossess and then Georgia Stanway to carry the ball forward, Williamson carved a pass right through the visitors’ defence. Manchester United’s Ella Toone was through one-on-one. She slotted home the first of what England hoped would be many.Embed from Getty Images
In all honesty, Wiegman could and maybe should have been celebrating four or five goals in the opening 20 minutes. A few shanked efforts from close in kept North Macedonia in the fixture. They weren’t to be in it for much longer.
Toone went off for a long and worrying spell after a rough challenge. For a while she looked certain to be subbed, but once assessed she was back. England instantly improved as they regained their 11th player. Within minutes, they had two. The ball fell for Ellen White in the box., and she slammed it into the corner, giving out a roar of emotion once she’d done so. Finally, daylight.
Then three. White went sniffing in and around the six-yard box, but the cross evaded her. Julija Zivikj kindly did White’s work for her. A wild swing at the ball diverted it into her own net. England were motoring now.
North Macedonia’s captain Nataša Andonova was bright and bubbly as she previewed the game to EnglandFootball.org last night. “I am always realistic and I am always honest. Tomorrow’s game will be tough,” she admitted. “It’s hard: five months without any game. But we are warriors, and we will fight until the last minute.”Embed from Getty Images
Whether that was true of Andonova was never in question. The 27-year-old is North Macedonia’s talisman, by far their greatest player, and has played for the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona. Her teammates are much less acclaimed, hence their hopeful shots from kick-off and from north of 40 yards out. To the visitors’ credit, there were long, dry spells for England in this game. But in the end, England blew them away.
The scoreboard stayed stubbornly at three for 20 long minutes at the beginning of the second half. But Ellen White would put that right. Williamson was felled as she entered the box. A penalty for the hosts meant a customary second for Ellen White. The Manchester City striker smashed home England’s fourth. Wiegman will know just how pivotal a fit and firing White will be to her hopes of success in the grandest matches of her reign. White and Wiegman shared a telling smile as the Dutch manager replaced her No 9 with Chelsea’s Beth England.
Chelsea’s England would get her opportunity. Indeed, she might well retire without getting an easier one. Fellow substitute Nikita Parris’s cross was goalbound. The keeper Suarta Rechi could only claw it off her goalline desperately. England stooped and nodded in from no more than two metres out. Lotte Wubben-Moy then sent a handsome cross-field long pass that landed perfectly at the feet of her Arsenal teammate Beth Mead. Mead crossed; Sara Kolarovska lashed the ball into her own net under pressure. A second own goal from the visitors; a sixth for the hosts.Embed from Getty Images
England mustered seventh and eighth goals within 50 seconds of each other as North Macedonia began to tire at St Mary’s. Beth England scored a much more technically impressive header than her first — thanks to Beth Mead’s excellent cross — before Mead went herself and hammered home the final of the evening by cutting in from the left.
It was a night so routine for England that very few conclusions can be drawn about either their progress or Sarina Wiegman’s tactical approach. But then most people expected that to be the case. 8-0 England, and Luxembourg to come on Tuesday…