It was a glorious homecoming for the Three Lions. Flags were laid out on all supporters seats at Wembley and waved with gusto on the players arrival, an almost capacity crowd were in good voice cheering the heroes from Russia and an air of expectancy and confidence filled the stadium.
The English players, sensing these positive vibes and good feelings, came out of the blocks strongly and were ahead after only 11 minutes. Marcus Rashford finishing off a glorious team move. It all started in the right back position with some intricate passing to extract themselves from a tight situation involving the stylish Joe Gomez, John Stones and Kieran Trippier, then taken up by Harry Kane and Jessie Lingard before the galloping Luke Shaw’s perfect low delivery from the left was side footed home by the orushing Rashford. Glorious, and one of the best England goals at Wembley for many a year.
However cheers quickly turned to jeers as Spain equalised within a minute. It is often said that a team is must vulnerable in the immediate moments after they have scored and it proved to be the case yet again here. Some slick interplay on the right involving Dani Carvajal resulted Rodrigo Moreno in reaching the goal line and his low cut back was smartly drilled home by the advancing Saul Niguez. What a response.
Worse was to follow for the home side as a Thiago Alcantara free kick from the left was deftly flicked home by Rodrigo at the near post after 32 minutes, a classy finish but not a goal which a decent aspiring international team should be conceding at the set piece.
An excellent response from a new look Spanish side, who proved to be a credit to their nation, still smarting from their ignominious exit from group stages of the World Cup.
Once they had taken the lead Spain largely dominated possession, passing with skill and alacrity, just like the winning Spanish sides of recent years. Luis Enrique, a relative novice in the managerial stakes, seems to have very quickly hit on a winning formula. Sergio Ramos, booed throughout, ran proceedings from the back and the likes of Sergio Busquets, Isco, Saúl and Thiago rarely misplaced a pass. At times it was a masterclass of possession football and for much of the time England were chasing shadows.
However, England are nothing if not spirited and their more direct style of football did produce chances and they really should have scored from one of them, Rashford being the biggest culprit. Despite his early goal, his header late in the first half was acrobatically clawed away by his club mate David de Gea when it was probably easier to score and, late on in the second half, space opened up for him as he moved in from the left but he shot straight at De Gea when a more accomplished finisher would have made De Gea work far harder. He really should have buried it.
It was at least encouraging that Rashford got himself into these positions whereas Harry Kane, who pre match was presented with the Golden Boot for his leading goalscoring exploits in the World Cup, hardly had a sight of goal all night. Dele Alli and Jesse Lingard were equally disappointing.
Southgate, waistcoatless on this occasion, still has much thinking to do and, in particular, whether to stick with the three centre backs, or seek to bolster reinforcements in the middle of the park where England were overrun, as well as lacked creativity and spark. Ruben Loftus-Cheek remained an interested observer on the sidelines throughout and he must surely be thrown into action sooner rather than later.
So. whilst England remain an encouraging work in progress they still, somewhat disappointingly, cannot quite take that next step to a higher level and defeat one of the World’s leading teams in meaningful competition.
So it was Spain who came away with the spoils in this the opening match in this group in the inaugural UEFA Nations League and proved that they still possess the talent pool and skill, and most definitely have what it takes to succeed at this level. Viva Espana!