By the skin of their teeth, England were on the right side of two stoppage-time penalties and duly won their Nations League opener in Iceland. Kyle Walker’s red card didn’t help an already struggling England, but Raheem Sterling scored the winner from 12 yards, seconds before Iceland missed an injury time penalty of their own.
The more superstitious viewers — recalling England’s woeful last meeting with Iceland — might have looked back on Harry Kane’s disallowed fourth-minute opener with more relief than regret. Roy Hodgson’s ill-fated side took that length of time to find the net in that Euro 2016 fixture. Need it be said what followed? Alas, it was the wrong decision that the referee and linesman made between them, here. The England captain was onside, and his 14th goal in his last 12 internationals should have stood but didn’t.
Gareth Southgate and his coaching staff won’t have minded too much about that early call, as the clock told them a whole afternoon of attacking football still lay ahead of them.
But as it ticked over to the 70-minute mark, Kyle Walker was shuffling away down the tunnel — quite rightly red-carded after spending a year out of England’s thinking. By this stage in the match, England had already lost many minutes tucking the ball between them from left to right and back again. It had become a slog.
As Phil Foden’s senior England debut came to an end, 18-year-old Mason Greenwood — from the other side of Manchester — assumed his position centre-stage. Still Southgate waited to see movement, rhythm and intention from his side in the final third. Iceland, without six of their key players (loosely explained by ‘Covid travel fears’), sat back throughout. To their credit, their two banks of four were keeping England where they wanted them.
It was a pretty unavoidable handball that gifted England a late, late lifeline in Reykjavík. Sverrir Ingi Ingason simply had to stop Raheem Sterling’s volley from a corner. But it was his elbow that blocked the shot, and the Three Lions won a penalty. Just as Walker, the defender was handed a second yellow and the match would end ten against ten. Kane had long been resigned to the bench, so the man who earned it promptly assumed responsibility and picked up the ball. He explained in his post-match interview that that late in the day, placing it down the middle was the clear risk-free option. Place it centrally he did — nervelessly — and England looked to have scraped a tired, stodgy win.
Would they hold on? Old habits die hard. England weren’t set, and Joe Gomez managed to concede a penalty within thirty seconds of the restart. Where England teams of yesteryear have suffered chronic lack of luck, this team seem different. They didn’t make their own luck here, granted, but an almighty slice arrived nonetheless. Birkir Bjarnason leaned back on his approach. The cardinal sin. Over the crossbar it sailed; it was over for Iceland.
England rode their luck and won the game. The bogey team negotiated. The monkey off their backs. But this wasn’t an expansive, fluid display to write home about. It won’t live long in the memory.
In the end this was, in many ways, an opportunity to realise just how good Raheem Sterling has become. With his Manchester City teammate Foden subbed and Walker’s sending off forcing a change of shape and point of emphasis, none of England’s oh-so-promising attacking midfielders were there to see out the game. In their absence, runs off the ball were non-existent. Sterling was left to force the issue himself. And, by hook or by crook, eventually he did. Eric Dier was wearing the armband by now, but Sterling was England’s leader in their relentless forays forward.
Victory marks some sort of momentum, even if England were far more functional last year by scoring a prolific 38 goals in just ten fixtures. Just the one — a penalty — on this bleak afternoon. More glamorous opponents beckon in the near future, but England are suited to counter-attacking football anyway. To describe matches against Denmark and Belgium as tougher tasks would be to miss the complexity of international football. England didn’t want to be trying to break down the Icelandic 4-4-2. By Jove, it showed.
The back three looks set to be dusted down and trialled again for the trip to Copenhagen on Tuesday, albeit with very different personnel than before. At an eerily quiet Laugardalsvöllur though, there was no sign of a Thunderclap whatsoever as England squirmed to three uncomfortable, if very welcome, points. A display to be filed under ‘requires improvement.’
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