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England held to shock draw by Macedonia

© Reuters 2002

By Trevor Huggins
SOUTHAMPTON, England, Oct 16 (Reuters) - England were held to a shock 2-2 draw at home to Macedonia on Wednesday, denting hopes of automatic qualification for Euro 2004.

It was England's worst home competitive result since being held 0-0 by Greece at Wembley in a European qualifier in 1983.

In a frantic 25-minute spell, Artim Sakiri beat David Seaman with an in-swinging corner in the 11th minute, David Beckham lobbed a quick equaliser and Vanco Trajanov restored Macedonia's lead before Steven Gerrard smacked in England's second.

But despite laying siege to the Macedonian goal in the second half and Michael Owen having a goal disallowed, England failed to match Saturday's 2-1 comeback victory in Slovakia.

To add to the embarrassment, they also lost volatile striker Alan Smith in injury time to a red card - England's first since David Batty's in a Euro 2000 qualifier against Poland.

The result sent World Cup semi-finalists Turkey clear at the top of Group Seven after a 5-0 win over Liechtenstein. They have nine points from three games with England in second with four from two.

England paid a high price for poor defending with Seaman certain to be in the line of fire after the 39-year-old's blunder handed the initiative to a skilful and well-organised Macedonia.

Sven-Goran Eriksson's bold experiment of using Southampton wingback Wayne Bridge as a left midfielder in his home stadium was soon overshadowed by the visitors' flying start.

Seaman's latest howler after his World Cup quarter-final blunder with Ronaldinho's matchwinner for Brazil, was to let Sakiri's viciously inswinging corner the right flank rocket straight into the top left corner of the England net.

Beckham took a captain's lead by equalising just three minutes later, superbly lobbing Petar Milosevski from a Paul Scholes chip.

But it proved to be shortlived as Trajanov drilled a free shot past Seaman in the 25th minute after Sol Campbell had made a woeful job of clearing Sakiri's cross into the box.

Chances then fell to Owen, Scholes and Smith before Gerrard levelled in the 36th minute with a near carbon copy of his majestic volley in last year's 5-1 Munich win - collecting the ball after a Beckham corner and driving home from the edge of the box.

Seaman went some way to making amends for his mistake by denying Sakiri a second within minutes of the re-start after Trajanov's chip caught England's static rearguard flat-footed.

England kept pushing forward but suffered a setback in the 55th minute when Gerrard stretched to intercept a ball and sank to the ground in pain - having strained a muscle.

With Nicky Butt taking Gerrard's place, Eriksson then made a tactical substitution by replacing Bridge with a striker, Darius Vassell, in a desperate search for a winner.

Vassell provided plenty of spark and Jonathan Woodgate was desperately unlucky not score in the 71st minute when his snapshot was cleared off the line by defender Robert Popov.

But further efforts from Smith, a Beckham free-kick and two from Vassell all failed, leaving England with yet another difficult qualifying campaign for a major tournament.

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