England 2 Ukraine 0
“This game is more than just a football game for us,” the Ukraine great Andriy Shevchenko told the Wembley crowd before kick-off. “People are fighting for the right to exist.” The Ukraine team could feel their nation watching, a few thousand here, many more millions at home, dreaming of victory, a short respite from the suffering. They had the passion, the goodwill of everybody. England had Bukayo Saka.
Gareth Southgate had called upon his players to build on the 2-1 win over Italy in Naples last Thursday, to take a grip on this Euro 2024 qualifying group. Thanks to a sensational performance from Saka, they did so. The Arsenal winger set up the opening goal for Harry Kane. He scored the second himself. Both were moments of breathtaking skill and precision and they embossed a display that was heavy on pace and menace. It was game over by half-time.
Kane was presented with a golden boot beforehand to mark his status as England’s record goalscorer thanks to his penalty in Naples which proved to be the winner and it was an occasion that he and his team-mates dealt with well. As the captain would put it afterwards, they have made a tough start to the campaign appear straightforward.
The emotion had pulsed from the outset, the Ukraine players emerging from the tunnel with blue and yellow flags around their shoulders; the rendition of their anthem seeing eyes well up. It remained easy to wonder how on earth they could play at all, a quote from another legendary ex-Ukraine player, Igor Belanov, hitting hard.
“Our players spend more time hiding from missiles than training, the sessions are interrupted all the time,” Belanov said. “Every day, the enemy destroys infrastructure, fires missiles and kills people. This gets to your brain, to your soul and it doesn’t leave fast.”
On the other hand, how can they not play? Football has come to stand as one of the few things that can disconnect the Ukrainian nation, however briefly, from the horrors of the war. The players, who arrived in London last Tuesday and trained at Brentford, are acutely aware of their responsibilities, their motivation pushing new extremes.
Saka was a threat from the first whistle; Ukraine rightly wary of him and dishing out the usual whacks. There was a moment early on when Saka finessed a lovely touch to Kane inside the area, the captain appealing unsuccessfully for a foul by Oleksandr Svatok and, as the first half wore on, so England worked the ball more and more insistently to Saka.
It was England up the right, with Jordan Henderson – back in the starting XI for Kalvin Phillips – chipping in, too, popping up in inside positions to flip over a couple of dangerous crosses.
Kane let the first one come across his body only to fail to make the desired connection with his left boot – it was high up and a little awkward, a difficult skill – while James Maddison, on his full debut, committed a foul as he tried to reach the second. Ben Chilwell, recalled for the suspended Luke Shaw, looked better set behind him.
Saka’s assist for the breakthrough goal was sumptuous, a slightly awed hum accompanying the big-screen replays. Kane had dropped off to spread the play with a diagonal and, when he darted for the far post, Saka curled the ball back towards him – call it a long-range one-two. Oleksandr Karavayev was in a bad position, feeling Kane behind him and, when the right-back attempted to spin and clear, it hit Kane and went in.
Saka’s finish for the second was even better. Addressing a short pass from Henderson, he always felt too smart for Mykola Matviyenko, taking a step to lure him one way; dropping his shoulder and skating in the other direction, further inside. He started the left-footed curler outside the far post but he put the bend on it to bring it back at the last moment. A wonderful goal, which Kane almost added to straight away only for Anatoliy Trubin to save a low shot from him with his legs.
Ukraine had previously lost just two of 19 European Championship qualifiers – home and away to Spain for Euro 2016 – but, after Saka’s goal, it looked over for them. They were able to show their comfort on the ball in patches while their physicality was pronounced – a little too much for Southgate’s liking. Svatok was fortunate to dodge a first-half booking for a heavy challenge on Jude Bellingham, who was yet again so easy on the eye.
Maddison had a few nice moments, driving in possession, some slick close control while Chilwell brought attacking possibility at left-back. Kyle Walker won his high-speed duel with Mykhailo Mudryk hands down – the Ukraine winger was substituted just after the hour – and it felt as though the second half was always likely to drift, the fans amusing themselves with paper planes and Mexican waves.
Ivan Toney got on for his debut in the 81st minute and England went close to a late third goal. Two other substitutes, Conor Gallagher and Jack Grealish, worked Trubin while in between times, Harry Maguire headed high from a corner. – Guardian