Football: Smiling Saka shines as England dismiss Ukraine in Euro qualifier

England's midfielder Bukayo Saka scores his team's second goal in London, on March 26, 2023. PHOTO: AFP

LONDON – Bukayo Saka is one of the first names on England manager Gareth Southgate’s team sheet and his performances for Arsenal are driving them towards the English Premier League title, so it is no wonder the 21-year-old cannot stop smiling.

The winger created England’s opener for Harry Kane in the comfortable 2-0 victory over Ukraine in a Euro 2024 Group C qualifier at Wembley on Sunday, then scored an absolute beauty himself to seal the Man of the Match award.

His curled effort was his eighth goal for his country and, in his last 16 national appearances, he has been involved in 10 goals.

Saka has racked up 12 goals and 10 assists in the Premier League too and appears to be able to do nothing wrong.

“Football is fun and it’s always fun. I just hope the happiness can continue to the end of the season,” said Saka, who has rebounded magnificently from missing a decisive penalty in the Euro 2020 final shoot-out, after which he was subjected to racist abuse.

The London-born Saka, who came through Arsenal’s youth ranks, will be a serious rival to Manchester City’s goal machine Erling Haaland for the Player of the Season award, should the Gunners win the league title.

Former England defender and ex-Manchester City manager Stuart Pearce, who was commentating on the game for talkSPORT, said: “He’s my Player of the Season at this moment. He gets better and better, and he’s been a thorn in the Ukrainians’ side.”

After the game, Southgate spoke of Saka having developed a “ruthless” streak.

“When he is in front of goal, he plays with real belief and that’s evident with his club and the games with us,” said Southgate, whose side are already firm favourites to top their qualifying group.

“You expect him to score now when he goes through, it was a mentality shift, he always had the technique.

“To be a top wide player you need the goals and assists, and he has delivered that all season.

“His hunger and humility has put him on a good path and he has all the attributes to improve and learn; that’s how he’s wired.”

Saka is also impressing his England teammates.

Leicester City midfielder James Maddison, who started on the opposite flank, said: “For such a young man, he’s got a what I would describe as a calm presence on the pitch.

“He doesn’t get flustered and that’s probably why he’s firing on all cylinders at the top of the Premier League.”

England sit atop Group C with six points. With their next game against Malta in June, the path looks inviting for them to quickly book their place in the Finals in Germany.

But Saka said nothing will be taken for granted.

“We’ve been really mature. We can’t just look past these games and magically be in the Euro. We have to qualify first,” he said.

Ukraine interim coach Ruslan Rotan, meanwhile, said the “incredible” Wembley atmosphere would inspire the team as they battle to qualify for Euro 2024.

“I want to thank all the Ukrainian supporters for their incredible signals to the team, the incredible wave of support the Ukrainian team felt every minute of the game,” said the caretaker coach of the war-torn nation.

“I’m also grateful for the support of the England fans because it was an atmosphere like no other international game I have ever experienced...

“This unique Wembley Stadium atmosphere will give an incredible boost to the Ukrainian players who experienced it first hand.”

Ukrainian legend and former coach Andriy Shevchenko added on Channel 4: “It’s very difficult and special. It’s about more than football. I want to say thank you to the UK for the support. Your support means a lot for me and my country.” REUTERS, AFP

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