Hits and misses: Sensational Saka but woe for Wales


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Sensational Saka caps stunning season

England's Bukayo Saka shoots at goal during the UEFA Euro 2024 Qualifying Group C match at Old Trafford, Manchester. Picture date: Monday June 19, 2023.
England’s Bukayo Saka scored his first hat-trick against North Macedonia

At the end of a marathon season, in his 58th appearance for club and country, Bukayo Saka delivered arguably his best performance yet, scoring his first senior hat-trick and doing so in stunning style.

His goals typified the ruthless efficiency the 21-year-old has added to his game. For the first, a razor-sharp turn and devastating finish on the angle. For the second, an even better effort, thundered home from outside the box from Trent Alexander-Arnold’s pass.

Those strikes underlined Saka’s penchant for the spectacular and his ball-striking prowess, but the third was all about composure as he latched onto Harry Kane’s pass and slotted home with the unerring coolness of a far older player.

It is, in part, his age that makes performances such as this, both for his country and his club, so thrilling. This season, Saka hit double figures for both goals and assists for Arsenal while at the same time becoming one of Gareth Southgate’s most important players.

Really, though, he is only just getting started. His post-match television interview after the game was a reminder of his boyish charm, and the fact that, still three months shy of his 22nd birthday, a player already at a world-class level will only get better.
Nick Wright

What a difference a year makes – but next 12 months huge for Southgate and England

Contrast and compare. England finished last season with a 4-0 humbling – or should that be humiliation? – at the hands of Hungary. Supporters inside Molineux chanted for Gareth Southgate to be sacked. Twelve months on, the England boss and his players celebrated a 7-0 thrashing of North Macedonia with fans at Old Trafford.

It was a display which demonstrated all the attacking potential of this talented group of players and has England well on course for a place at Euro 2024 in Germany. Southgate will head into his summer holidays in a far better mood this time around.

But there is no escaping the pressure and expectation which will ramp up in the next 12 months as that next major tournament approaches. Last winter’s World Cup – and that all-too-familiar quarter-final exit to France – felt like a missed opportunity. England can not afford the next one to pass them by.

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Midfielder Phil Foden reflects on a triumphant victory against North Macedonia

The upcoming Euros is set to be the tournament which ultimately defines the legacy of Southgate and the majority of this generation of players on the international stage.

If they can take the positives from the past two qualifiers against North Macedonia and Malta and apply them to the tougher tests to come, then fans are right to be optimistic and expectant. But just as that summertime shambles at home to Hungary did not dictate what happened in Qatar, so this final flourish to 2023/24 is just merely a stepping stone towards next summer.

There are still questions to answer, from midfield make-ups to how to tactically out-wit the best managers in the game. They are at least challenges which can be tackled with a positive mindset now.
Peter Smith

Wales qualification hopes drift into Black Sea

Wales were deservedly beaten in Turkey
Wales were deservedly beaten in Turkey

Automatic qualification for Germany is slipping through Robert Page’s fingers. After successive defeats this June, Wales have now won only one of their last 12 games in all competitions, while they have lost four of their last five games on their travels.

Wales are almost certainly guaranteed a play-off spot through their Nations League ranking, but the deficiencies on show in Monday’s eventual 2-0 defeat to Turkey have been a couple of years in the making, and the Welsh FA must now decide if Page is the right man to find the necessary solutions.

Both Umut Nayir and Arda Güler scored their first goals for Turkey having come off the bench, while Page had very little wriggle room after Joe Morrell’s somewhat harsh dismissal.

Wales have now had a player sent off in successive games after Kieffer Moore against Armenia. Given the expected period of transition following Gareth Bale’s retirement among others, it could not have come at a more challenging time for Page, who was again unable to paper over the defensive fragility exposed by the team ranked No 97 in the world last Friday.

Joe Morrell is sent off
Joe Morrell was sent off for a reckless challenge

Ben Cabango was called upon in place of Brennan Johnson out of necessity as he reverted to a low block of five. It was a signal to their opponents that a draw was the height of their ambition. Harry Wilson’s free-kick might have brought an unlikely win and despite Danny Ward’s penalty heroics, the eventual punishment felt an inevitability.

Former striker Rob Earnshaw told Sky Sports: “This turned into a must-win because Armenia had beaten Latvia to put pressure on them. To be honest, I didn’t see the reaction from Wales. That’s the worrying part. It leaves them with a lot to learn from. This is a very bad Wales camp.

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Former Wales international Robert Earnshaw reacts to Turkey’s first goal in the Euro Qualifiers

“When I was in the team taking over from the Gary Speeds and the Chris Colemans, there were changes made because we needed to get better. Right now, I’m struggling to see where we’re getting better because our game is very similar and we’re getting punished for it.

“Page called his players to produce a performance the fans could be proud of and they didn’t produce it. It’s a 2-0 that could’ve been a 3-0 or a 4-0. Defensively, Wales just look so open.”

There was no reaction to the Armenia debacle. Wales’ Euro 2024 qualifying hopes are in serious peril. In Samsun, a historic port town on the Black Sea, those aspirations are sinking without a trace.
Ben Grounds

Ferguson and Johnston provide much-needed Irish inspiration

Evan Ferguson and Michael Johnston celebrate
Evan Ferguson and Michael Johnston celebrate during Ireland’s 3-0 win against Gibraltar

Stephen Kenny must have been extremely grateful to see Gibraltar next up on Republic of Ireland’s fixture list, given his side’s back-to-back defeats at the start of Euro 2024 Qualifying.

A visit from Gibraltar is as close to a gimme as is possible in international football given they have lost every qualifier they have played, which made Kenny’s decision to line up with three centre-backs a little curious.

Ireland toiled in the first half but the manager deserves credit for recognising his error at half-time and introducing the exciting Michael Johnston for the second half.

The winger, who spent the season on loan at Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes from Celtic and switched his international allegiance from Scotland earlier this year, brought some much-needed spark to Ireland’s previously lethargic performance.

Similarly impressive was Evan Ferguson, who led the line effectively and ensured he signed off from his breakthrough season with another deserved goal.

Ireland may be outsiders to make it out of Group B and Kenny will have to do more than lead his side to victory over Gibraltar to convince the doubters he is the right person to lead his country, but Ferguson and Johnston should give supporters hope for the future.
Joe Shread

Northern Ireland hopes hang by a thread

Shayne Lavery of Northern Ireland dejected during the loss vs Kazakhstan
Northern Ireland suffered their third Euro 2024 Qualifying defeat at the hands of Kazakhstan

Northern Ireland have earned a reputation of punching above their weight on the international stage. Their appearance at Euro 2016 was built upon it. But that reputation is waning.

Michael O’Neill’s return to the national team hot-seat was supposed to herald the return of the resilient Northern Ireland but they have fallen well short of those expectations, and their Euro 2024 hopes are hanging by a thread as a result.

An expectant crowd arrived at Windsor Park for Monday’s Qualifier against Kazakhstan, a side 50 places below them in the FIFA rankings, but they were issued a reality check on Northern Ireland’s recent progress, or lack of.

As Kazakhstan claimed a third victory from your Group H games to further strengthen their claim for a first major tournament appearance, Northern Ireland tasted a third defeat of the campaign, with their only victory coming against minnows San Marino.

The boos which rang around Windsor Park as the full-time whistle sounded told their own tale, the realisation that another tournament may have already passed the Green and White Army by.
Jack Wilkinson

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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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