Bukayo Saka’s cheerful smile was an indication of how much times had changed for England since they put on their last show on the road at home.
The 21-year-old – an exquisitely talented Arsenal fan dubbed ‘Starboy’ – delivered a long kiss on the match ball when he completed his first career hat-trick to be the centerpiece of England’s 7-0 victory over North Macedonia at Old Trafford. .
The whole stadium rocked Saka when he was substituted and he did it again for England after they enjoyed a plentiful run of four wins from four in their Euro 2024 qualifying campaign.
It would take something completely extraordinary for England not to qualify, especially after they had their toughest and dustiest match with the win over Italy in Naples.
This was a far cry from the previous occasion, almost a year ago, when England played their last home game away at Wembley.
The match ended in a 4-0 thrashing against Hungary in a Uefa Nations League match at Molineux – a defeat and a performance that produced such a toxic reaction from home fans that he factored in manager Gareth Southgate’s thoughts as he considered whether to extend his stay after the match ended. world Cup.
Southgate decided to carry on after England’s quarter-final loss to France in Qatar – and just one look at the quality at his disposal makes it easy to see why.
We must apply the usual caveat here, although the opposition’s standard, here and in the 4-0 win in Malta on Friday, was certainly below par.
It deals with elite opposition as England’s problems come to light and they may not have the chance to really test themselves until they get to Germany for next year’s Euros.
However, the quality of England’s work can still be admired and there is no doubt Southgate has scintillating attacking talent at his disposal.
And the star of this particular show was Saka, a certain rapport was built in this team and he was already showing signs of bringing rich profits to England in times to come.
Southgate’s decision to deploy Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold in midfield was the big experiment and talking point of these two qualifiers. It was a huge success, especially since he seems perfectly tuned to the same wavelength as Saka.
They came together in the build-up to England’s first goal in Malta and took part in a true ‘X Factor’ moment in that win over North Macedonia just after half-time.
As he did in Malta, Alexander-Arnold picked off Saka with a perfect long pass. This time Saka dominated, the second time with his chest, before smashing a powerful volley past North Macedonia’s helpless goalkeeper, Stole Dimitrievsky.
The palpable joy of his teammates when he completed his hat-trick – and when they sought him out with the match ball at the final whistle – showed Saka not only lavishly talented, but hugely popular.
And as always, Harry Kane was on target as he broke the deadlock with his 57th England goal, then added another goal from the penalty spot. Marcus Rashford, very dangerous in the first half, scored from Jordan Henderson’s selfless pass.
Southgate managed to send Manchester City’s Champions League winners Phil Foden and Jack Grealish off the bench. The latter received a rapturous reception in unlikely surroundings at Old Trafford, and his reputation seems to have been boosted by those, shall we say, rapturous celebrations after the glory of the victory over Inter Milan in Istanbul.
Jude Bellingham, considered by many to be England’s leading star in the future, did not participate in the match as the youngster, who moved to Real Madrid in a deal that could be worth up to 115 million pounds, was absent due to injury. He will come right back when he’s fit.
Southgate now faces a happy dilemma and time to find the answers, with qualification less certain and a real air of confidence and optimism around camp.
The team that beat North Macedonia will form the basis of England’s Euro squad, although Chelsea’s Reece James will, when fit, challenge Kyle Walker at right-back.
Harry Maguire will certainly need to play regularly, most likely somewhere other than Manchester United, to keep those watching his place at bay.
Foden and Grealish will stake their claim for a spot on the wings, while Raheem Sterling will be hoping for his best form after a poor season at Chelsea.
But it is in midfield where all eyes are really focused following Alexander-Arnold’s successful move to the senior position he most recently held with Liverpool.
Declan Rice will start and Bellingham’s place is non-negotiable. Will Southgate opt for the safer option either Calvin Phillips or Jordan Henderson alongside Rice or will Alexander-Arnold be the answer?
It could be a thorny problem for Southgate against better teams, but it’s an interesting one.
A lot depends, very obviously, on how next season is postponed, but England could not be in a better position to qualify for Germany next summer.
Given England’s quality, there should be no excuse for them not just to get to Euro 2024, but to dig deeper into it as they seek to get one better than their last crack in this tournament when they lost in the final to Italy at Wembley.