In Naples last week, it was Jude Bellingham who caught the eye with a performance that marked him out, once again, as a young star with a stellar talent.
Declan Rice, who produced his best display in an England shirt, was not far behind him. In these heady days of believing that France and Gareth Southgate’s side will be favourites to win next year’s European Championship, it feels as if every match is a song of praise for someone new.
At Wembley against Ukraine, it was Bukayo Saka. Saka played well against Italy but his contribution was overshadowed by Bellingham, Rice and Harry Kane, whose first-half penalty on Thursday made him England’s all-time leading goalscorer. This time, though, no one could overshadow him. This time, he proved again why he is one of the jewels of this increasingly impressive England side.
This was a very different match to the test of character that the game in the Stadio Diego Armando Maradona had turned into. It felt stale and one-sided compared to the passion play in Italy. No one wants to beat Ukraine at the moment and, certainly, no one wants to beat them badly. A football match is never an exercise in compassion but maybe awareness of the country’s plight helped turn the second half of this match into a training game.
That left the first half and the first half was a demonstration of the brilliance of Saka. After a tentative opening half an hour, Saka made the first goal for Kane, the England captain’s 55th strike for his country and then, three minutes later, curled in a shot of quite stunning quality from outside the area. Saka was a constant source of elegant elusiveness and creativity. Almost every touch was a reminder that he has become one of the best players in Europe.
Bukayo Saka’s stunning curled shot was enough to make England’s advantage 2-0 at the half-time break
Saka’s showing in the Ukraine win on Sunday showed just how important he is going to be for English football
Sunday’s fixture was Ukraine’s first competitive match for over six months, and the lack of gameplay showed
Saka has made one of the forward wide positions in Southgate’s 4-3-3 system his own and every time he plays, he strengthens his position. He embodies the mix that Southgate — and every other manager — prizes: high quality and low maintenance. The consistency of the threat that he provides on the flanks, his crossing ability, his awareness of space, the skill to fool a player by using his body and not even touching the ball, has made him one of Southgate’s priceless assets.
‘It is a top-level finish from Saka,’ Southgate said after the match. ‘That is the ruthless part he has added to his game in the last 18 months or so. There were times in the past, perhaps, when you weren’t sure he was going to finish but now he has that confidence in front of goal.’
England (4-3-3): Pickford, Walker, Stones, Maguire, Chilwell, Henderson, Rice, Bellingham (Gallagher 86), Saka, Kane (Toney 81), Maddison (Grealish 86)
Substitutes: Trippier, Ramsdale, Guehi, Dier, Phillips, Forster
Goals: Kane 37, Saka 40
Manager: Gareth Southgate
Ukraine (4-2-3-1): Trubin, Karavaev (Buyalskyi 61), Svatok, Matvienko, Mykolenko (Sobol 61), Stepanenko (Konoplyanka 90), Zinchenko, Malinovskyi, Sudakov, Mudryk (Tsygankov 61), Yaremchuk (Dovbyk 74)
Substitutes: Lunin, Sarapyi, Sydorchuk, Miroshnichenko, Bondarenko, Pikhalyonok, Shevchenko
Manager: Ruslan Rotan
Referee: Serdar Gozubuyuk
So even though much of the attention before the game had been focused on the inclusion of James Maddison for his first international start, by the end of it, Saka had shown his team-mate what a performance of creativity looks like at this level. Maddison played well. He was solid. It was just that the Arsenal forward, who is still only 21, played with the composure and the assurance of someone in his prime.
It was another good night for Southgate, too. England have negotiated two of their most difficult tasks in their qualifying group in their first two games without dropping a point and have earned the right to play the rest of the group without pressure.
Once, we made excuses for this England team because of its youth but these players look like men now. They are improving all the time, growing in character and experience.
They look like a team who are ready. There was even, in the game’s closing minutes, a deserved debut for Brentford’s Ivan Toney, who is facing FA charges about alleged historic gambling activities but who has shrugged off the scrutiny to remain one of the best and most prolific strikers in the Premier League.
England are at a stage now where every absence — be it Marcus Rashford or Phil Foden, recovering from an appendix operation — is an opportunity for someone else to stake a claim to be involved in a squad that feels like it is going places.
The match was Ukraine’s first competitive game in more than six months and it looked like it. They are fighting against the odds on the battlegrounds in the east of their country and on football pitches where they are facing sides whose seasons have not been interrupted by air raid sirens and missiles cratering their football pitches.
They did their fans and their countrymen proud on Sunday night but they offered little in the way of a football threat.
The game felt flat and pedestrian in comparison with the high-tempo tension of the match last Thursday and it was not until midway through the half that England forged something close to another opportunity. Again, Kane was the focus of it. This time, he found himself free on the edge of the six-yard box as a steepling cross from Jordan Henderson fell to him but Kane swiped at it and missed.
Kane does not miss often and he proved it with the next chance he got nine minutes before half-time. He started the move himself, sweeping a pass from one side of the pitch to the other to Saka on the right flank. Saka teased his opponent before curling a flat cross to the back post where Kane had ghosted in behind his marker to force the ball home with his left shin. No 55 was another hint that, now that the Tottenham forward has the record, he may go on to put it out of reach for some time.
Harry Kane extended his record number of England goals by scoring the opening goal of the game after 37 minutes
It was a very good night for manager Gareth Southgate (above), as they won England’s first home game of 2023
Ivan Toney (right) made his Three Lions debut with ten minutes remaining, replacing England captain Kane (left)
Three minutes after Kane had broken the deadlock, Saka turned from provider into scorer with a quite brilliant strike. He took a short ball from Henderson on the edge of the box, turned his man beautifully with a drop of his shoulder and then bent his shot beautifully around Ukraine goalkeeper Anatoliy Trubin and into the top right-hand corner of the net.
Saka caused more problems down the right early in the second half when he drilled in a low cross from the right that Bellingham tried to turn into the net first time but failed to make the right connection. With Ukraine unable to make any inroads in England’s defence, the game fizzled out.
In the hiatus, the supporters grew distracted and a hail of paper aeroplanes filled the air. It was a neat reminder of how lucky we are that we are still playing games here. In Ukraine, other things fall from the sky and they are not made of paper.