Iceland 0-1 England
It was anything but vintage – in fact, England rather got away with it!
But a late, late show in Reykjavik means their UEFA Nations League campaign is off to a winning start and, with it, the avoidance of embarrassment at the hands of Iceland for the second time in four years.
There was a minute of normal time remaining when Raheem Sterling chested down and shot with the ball adjudged to have hit the hand of Sverrir Ingason as he made the block. Ingason was harshly dismissed and Sterling converted the penalty.
Straight from the restart, centre-back Joe Gomez tangled with substitute Hólmbert Fridjónsson who went to ground.
Another spot-kick was awarded, but this time, Birkir Bjarnason — once of Aston Villa — fired his penalty high into the empty stands.
England had managed to win, even if they had done little to banish memories of their Euro 2016 defeat by the minnows.
Highlights of the game
Pre-match, I had remarked that this clash was possibly of limited importance to Iceland, given their players who opted not to play.
Meanwhile, England — playing their first international since November 2019 — clearly were expected to succeed and made eight changes from the starting XI that beat Kosovo 4-0 last time out.
Manchester City starlet Phil Foden was given his international debut, while captain Harry Kane, Sterling and Declan Rice were the only survivors from that game in Pristina.
Jordan Pickford replaced Nick Pope in goal and there were starts for Kyle Walker, Gomez, Eric Dier, Kieran Trippier, James Ward-Prowse and Jadon Sancho.
Perennial underdogs since struggling to live up to their fine showings at Euro 2016 and in the 2018 World Cup, it seemed Iceland were there for the taking early on.
Kane had the ball in the net but his effort was ruled out for offside as he stretched to touch home a Sterling cross.
Replays showed he was onside but there was no VAR and the decision, along with a gilt-edged miss from Rice in the 18th minute, did little to ease the frustrations of England, who became increasingly unable to break down their battling hosts.
The home manager, Erik Hamren, was already without six important players and he lost a seventh in the warm-up when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, the striker who scored the winner against England four years ago, had to withdraw.
And so the match went on without any UEFA Nations League 2020 highlights of note before England were reduced to 10 men as Walker collected a second yellow card, marring his return to the international fold after a 15-month absence.
Ultimately, it didn’t matter and England prevailed with Man United teenager Mason Greenwood, who clearly impressed England captain Kane in training this week, among those given a chance from the bench.
On this evidence though, no wonder manager Gareth Southgate had already indicated more senior players will return to the squad next month.
Improve, or the SBOTOP UEFA Nations League 2020 betting odds on England bettering their third place in the inaugural competition will not even be worth considering.
Sterling has 17 goal involvements in his last 12 England appearances (11 goals, six assists).
This is the first time a Man City and a Man United player have made their England debut in the same game since September 1992, when Paul Ince (United) and David White (City) earned their first caps.
Walker is the first player to be sent off for England since Sterling against Ecuador in June 2014.
As a 68th minute substitute, Danny Ings made his first appearance for England since October 2015 – 1,790 days ago. It’s the longest gap between England games for an outfielder since Arsenal full-back Lee Dixon went 1,911 days between 1993 and 1999.
England have scored 47 goals in their past 14 matches (won 11, drawn one, lost two) – their 38 goals during 2019 was their most in a year since 1966 (also 38) and bettered in only one previous calendar year when they netted 39 in 1908.
Both nations have tough assignments on Tuesday evening (September 8).
Iceland travel to Belgium to meet the third-best team in the world at the 2018 World Cup, while England are in Copenhagen to meet Denmark.
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