England remain unbeaten in UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 7 after Wayne Rooney - now his country's youngest-ever goalscorer at 17 years and 317 days - and David Beckham struck after half-time in Skopje to secure a 2-1 win against F.Y.R. Macedonia.
Victory looked a distant prospect in a first half in which Georgi Hristov opened the scoring for the home side. Yet England again showed their spirit to ensure that, providing they beat Liechtenstein on Wednesday, they will travel to Turkey next month needing just a draw to claim an automatic passage to Portugal.
As expected, Beckham was fit to captain England after picking up a groin injury playing for Real Madrid CF on Tuesday. In the absence of the injured Steven Gerrard and Paul Scholes, Frank Lampard and Owen Hargreaves took up midfield positions with John Terry partnering Sol Campbell in central defence. The hosts named a full-strength side including Artim Sakiri who plays his football in England.
Indeed, the West Bromwich Albion FC forward was one of the most productive players in an opening 45 minutes in which England failed to produce a shot worthy of the name. The early exchanges were tense, with Ilco Naumoski booked as early as the second minute for felling Nicky Butt. That was not indicative of the home team's approach, though, as they played the more intelligent football and created the clearer chances.
In the 14th minute slack play from England allowed Sakiri to find Hristov whose delightful first-time pass set Sakiri free, only for an offside flag to halt what would have been a clear charge on goal. One of the features of the first half was the tussle between Hristov and Campbell. The England defender had the upper hand until a four-minute spell which saw Campbell booked for felling Hristov and the striker score.
Campbell was involved in the 28th-minute opening goal, too, misjudging a Vlatko Grozdanovski cross which allowed Goran Pandev a shot on goal. Although Terry got his foot to that effort, the ball rebounded to Hristov who was able to score via the legs of David James. It was a sign of England's frustration that Beckham was booked for tugging the shirt of Hristov as the half drew to a close, yet he was an influential figure after the break.
A bold move by Sven-Göran Eriksson saw Lampard replaced by Emile Heskey, who laid on Rooney's historic equalising goal in the 52nd minute. The Liverpool FC striker, much maligned at international level, headed a fine Beckham chipped pass into the path of the on-rushing Everton FC teenager who slotted it first time underneath Milosevski from the edge of the area.
Paying the penalty
Eleven minutes later England took a lead which they were not to relinquish after Terry showed nimble footwork in the Macedonian area before being tripped by substitute Braga. Beckham scored the penalty with ease and England were soon celebrating a seventh successive victory - a post-war record which should be extended against Liechtenstein before the trip to Istanbul.