RASH REFEREEING SPOILS HEROES’ HOMECOMING
In a game marred by Luke Shaw’s head injury, England lost their UEFA Nations League opener to Spain at Wembley. Many controversial decisions went against the home-side, including the disallowing of a seemingly legitimate stoppage-time leveller.
Over 80,000 were in attendance for England’s first match since their ground-breaking World Cup. Gareth Southgate dropped Kyle Walker in favour of the returning Joe Gomez, with Marcus Rashford starting up-front alongside Harry Kane. Luis Enrique’s first Spain line-up included two former Bolton Wanderers players – Marcos Alonso and Rodrigo. Harry Kane was awarded with his World Cup Golden Boot ahead of kick-off.
Both sides enjoyed decent spells of possession in the early stages, but England were the team to strike first. Jordan Henderson evaded a challenge well, before finding Harry Kane. The Spurs striker turned smartly to find an unmarked Luke Shaw, in acres of space on the left-wing. Shaw played a truly sublime pass right around the Spanish attack, where Rashford was waiting to tap home. Manchester United players assisted, scored and conceded the goal. A sold-out Wembley celebrated an exemplary counter-attacking goal, scored against one of the world’s top teams.
England, though, were only able to celebrate the goal for a minute. Determined to get back on level terms, Enrique’s Spain kicked off with purpose. Dani Carvajal found it a little easy to beat Shaw out wide, before tucking the ball into the path of striker Rodrigo. The Valencia man continued to the by-line to pull the ball back into the box. There to volley home an immediate equaliser was 23-year-old Saúl Ñíguez. The Atlético Madrid number eight wheeled away in jubilation. Spain had cut short the Wembley celebrations.
Gareth Southgate’s men were the next to have a chance to score. A looping freekick from Luke Shaw was given the trademark Harry Maguire knockdown at the far post. Harry Kane’s golden boots were winding up for a powerful volley, but it never came. As one Spain defender nicked the ball away from him, another seems to haul him down to the ground. However, the referee remained unmoved and England were denied a potential penalty.
On half-an-hour, Kieran Trippier gave away a needless freekick on Spain’s left wing. England’s defenders marked zonally, and tried to play their opponents offside. As the ball came bending in, Brazilian-born Rodrigo ran far too easily between Kane and Joe Gomez to tap the ball cutely past Jordan Pickford. The man that had assisted Spain’s first had scored their second. Spain looked to have recovered from there disastrous World Cup campaign. It had taken them just thirty minutes. England needed a response, and it so nearly came at the end of the half. A short corner between Luke Shaw and Dele Alli saw Jesse Lingard end up in possession. As he lifted the ball in, Marcus Rashford headed powerfully towards goal. His Manchester United teammate David de Gea showed why he is one of the world’s best though, with an elastic save. At half-time, the more assured side were ahead. Spain led by a goal.
With barely two minutes played of the second half, Luke Shaw went down dramatically after a collision with Dani Carvajal. After nearly eight minutes of assessment on the pitch, the Manchester United player, only now back to full form after his double leg-break, was stretchered off. We now know that he’s okay. When the match did get back underway, but with Danny Rose on as Shaw’s replacement, Spain began to take control of a subdued England side. Marcos Alonso, who plays his club football in London with Chelsea, flung a cross into the box which missed every defender or attacker that went for it. At the edge of the box, Italian-born Thiago Alcântara met the ball in full flight, with a lovely cutting volley. It grazed the roof of the net on its way.
But England eventually settled down and, for the final thirty minutes of the match, were much the better team. Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford both missed good chances from offside positions, before Rashford found himself in possession of another golden chance to equalise. Dele Alli played a lovely penetrative pass to Kane, who released the ball to Rashford. Manchester United’s manager was watching from the stands, and would have loved Rashford’s first touch, which took him well away from the close attention of defender Nacho. When Rashford did finally shoot, the ball ricocheted off de Gea’s leg, before dropping for Kane. The Spurs striker volleyed wide and another chance was squandered.
A huge roar arose around Wembley as the fourth official held up his board. There would be a minimum of nine minutes added on; England were going to need them all. The Three Lions piled on intense pressure in this period. With Danny Welbeck on for a tired Marcus Rashford, the ball was swung into the box by Joe Gomez. Sergio Ramos’ attempted clearance went more up than out, and as the ball dropped, de Gea leaped highest to catch the ball. But as he leapt, Spain’s centre-back pairing seemed to nudge Danny Welbeck into the path of de Gea. As the goalkeeper landed, he fell over Welbeck and dropped the ball. The Arsenal striker turned smartly before sliding in a crucial late equaliser for the home side. However, as he sprinted away to celebrate, referee Danny Makkelie instantly disallowed the goal. England’s players and manager battled with the officials in heartache. Harry Kane said the referee “needed to stay strong” in the situation, but that “he bottled it”, and Southgate felt “everybody can see it should have been a goal”. England’s 98th-minute goal that never was will haunt the side for a good while yet, but it ended England 1-2 Spain at Wembley.
Spain played better for more of the game, but England can take comfort from the fact they returned to finish so strongly. They were denied a legitimate equalising goal. The Three Lions had more shots on goal than Spain – they just must be more clinical.
Southgate knows what courses of action he must take if England are to recover from an opening-day defeat in the Nations League and become one of the best sides on the planet. Their next test sees them take on Switzerland on Tuesday. Their Nations League debut was much sweeter – they saw off Iceland, 6-0.