Saka confirms status as jewel England’s crown after superb display against Ukraine
Bukayo Saka‘s development as a golden talent for Arsenal and England is moving at such a rapid rate that special moments no longer come as any surprise.
The 21-year-old confirmed his growing stature as a jewel in England’s crown by playing a key role in the space of three minutes to set up the 2-0 victory against Ukraine that gave them maximum points from their first two Euro 2024 qualifiers.
England had laboured for 37 minutes in the face of a well-organised Ukraine, with Saka the shining light and biggest hope of a breakthrough as he gave Everton left-back Vitalii Mykolenko a torrid time.
Saka duly delivered with an inviting cross that deflected to Harry Kane at the far post for his 55th goal for England, adding to the all-time record he set in the 2-1 opening qualifying win against Italy in Naples.
The high point of a game that was routine in its outcome, and efficient in its performance, came three minutes later as Saka once again illuminated the international stage.
He cut in off the right flank before curling a left-foot shot of quality and precision into the top corner, beyond the outstretched grasp of Ukraine keeper Anatoliy Trubin.
And that, effectively, was that. Job done.
Saka is now one of England’s young indispensable talents alongside Jude Bellingham and Declan Rice – a trio that manager Gareth Southgate will, barring accidents, count on until Euro 2024 at the very least.
He is a world-class player in the making. Indeed some might say, with justification, that he is already at that rarified level.
Arsenal’s youngster had an excellent World Cup in Qatar and has been scintillating in the Gunners’ thrilling pursuit of a first Premier League title since 2004.
Saka looks perfectly at home at any level and the good news for club and country is that his progress shows no sign of slowing down. Indeed, such is his ability and dedication he will only get better.
This was his eighth goal for England, proof positive that he is not only a creator but a scorer. He is no longer an unknown quantity to international defences but he has the talent to find ways to make his impact and he did it again here.
Saka’s work-rate is tireless, his team ethic exemplary and any attempts to use the physical side of the game to disrupt him are simply shrugged off.
He was the star of this England show, ensuring manager Southgate of the start to the qualifiers he would have craved before this international break.
It is dangerous to look too far ahead, but on the evidence of England’s first away win in Italy since 1961 and this comfortable Wembley success it is already hard to see any circumstances in which they will not be in Germany, and touted as potential winners, in summer 2024.
Their performances have not been perfect by any means but the results are the ideal foundations for progress in a group also containing Malta and North Macedonia.
Southgate will have been hugely satisfied with England’s first 45 minutes in Naples before a mystifying drop in performance levels in the second half. Here, they produced a desperately pedestrian first 37 minutes before Saka provided the spark.
Ukraine did not pose a serious attacking problem for England’s defence, nor any anxious moments for goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and the suggestion they might come back into the game.
And there were other plus points for Southgate and England to go with good results.
Leicester City’s James Maddison justified his selection for a first start ahead of Jack Grealish with a busy, creative performance that will have pleased his many admirers after his hopes of making his mark at the World Cup were hampered by a knee injury sustained in his final club game before the tournament.
And there was also a special moment for Brentford’s 27-year-old striker Ivan Toney, who won his first cap as an 81st-minute substitute. It was something he may have thought would never come after he was in England’s squad for Uefa Nations League games in Italy and at home to Germany last September, but not used.
Captain Kane received a Golden Boot before kick-off in recognition of breaking the country’s scoring record with his 54th goal in Italy.
And he started to push the record mark out even further by bundling home the all-important opener. It was hardly a thing of beauty but re-affirmed just how vital Kane is to England with that natural marksman’s knack – and his leadership.
This particular day, however, belonged to Saka.