England 1-2 Spain
Whether or not the Uefa Nations League ever amounts to anything, in the grand scheme of things, it looks like being another means of exposing the difficulty England have in beating the very best.
Gareth Southgate warned in his pre-match press briefings that a ‘non-existent’ record against the elite needs to change, but that change will not come easily, as this opening fixture of a new season showed.
It was much the same in the summer, of course, when three defeats came England’s way at the hands of better sides. For all the unfettered joy of that dash to the semi-finals, the near miss came with a dose of realism.
There was much early optimism at Wembley when Marcus Rashford finished off a flowing counter-attack to put England ahead after 11 minutes, but it soon dissolved.
Within two minutes Saul Niguez had equalised and sloppy defending at a free-kick allowed Valencia striker Rodgrigo to poke home a second for Spain before the break. The visitors, slicker in midfield, were now in control. Sounds familiar.
Rashford did have two chances to level – a header from six yards, and a cut into the box, both ended in Man United team-mate David de Gea foiling him. Overall, Spain looked at ease, without looking earth-shattering.
This brand new competition – a welcome upgrade on meaningless friendlies - will be an early opportunity for Southgate’s men to exact small-scale revenge on the Croatian side that beat them in the Moscow semi-final. But finishing top of this group of three to reach next June’s play-off finals for Europe’s top sides already looks a tall order.
Fans are officially enamoured with the national side again after the great summer of love that saw England come agonisingly close to reaching only a second World Cup final.
They turned out in big numbers (81,392 in attendance) for their first match since the third and fourth place defeat to Belgium in St Petersburg – and you suspect the memory of those euphoric weeks in Russia swelled the crowd as much as the prospect of seeing a proper competitive fixture, rather than a friendly.
The Golden Boot Harry Kane won for top scoring in Russia was waved about proudly before kick-off. The band revived the songs of praise aimed at Southgate.
But a bad head injury to the luckless Luke Shaw at the start of the second half – the Man United player having worked so hard to regain fitness and international standing – seemed symptomatic of another uncomfortable night for the hosts, trying to live with the best.
Southgate had no Raheem Sterling to bother Spain’s accomplished defenders, and even with a midfield of five, it was hard for England to get to grips with their opponents and they had lengthy spells without the ball.
But at least they showed spirit and ended the game strongly. They were denied an equaliser late on when Danny Welbeck turned the ball home following a De Gea spillage, only for ref Danny Makkelie of Holland to rule there had been illegal contact on the keeper. If you are going to beat the best, you need things like that to go your way.