Still think Gareth Southgate’s on the road to nowhere with England? On Monday night, in front of a proper, hostile crowd, in a proper, competitive match, England’s youngest starting XI since 1959 recorded the country’s best result since beating Germany away in 2001.
They won in Spain thanks to three first-half goals, two of them from Raheem Sterling, with a performance that was by turn brave, brilliant, fraught and downright manic.
Jordan Pickford went from being the architect of two goals to almost getting sent-off and Spain almost snatched a point in the second half as England clung on, replacing polish with old fashioned grit and downright bloody mindedness.
SPAIN (4-3-3) : De Gea, Jonny, Nacho, Ramos, Alonso; Alcantara, Busquets, Saul (Paco 56); Aspas (Ceballos 57), Rodrigo (Morata 72), Asensio
Subs not used: Albiol, Arrizabalaga, Azpilicueta, Bartra, Suso, Gaya, Rodrigo, Lopez, Koke
Goals: Paco 58, Ramos 90+8
Booked: Ramos, Jonny, Ceballos, Morata
Manager: Luis Enrique
ENGLAND (4-3-1-2): Pickford; Trippier (Alexander-Arnold 85), Maguire, Gomez; Chilwell; Barkley (Walker 75), Dier, Winks (Chalobah 90); Sterling; Rashford, Kane
Subs not used: Butland, Bettinelli, Dunk, Mount, Maddison, Sancho
Goals: Sterling 16, 38, Rashford 30
Booked: Dier, Winks, Maguire
Manager: Gareth Southgate
Referee: Szymon Mariniak (Poland).
It was a wonderful game. The UEFA Nations League has flaws aplenty, but the aggressive nature of the matches is not among them. Anyone who thinks England won because Spain were not bothered can’t have seen the game.
They certainly looked bothered when Paco Alcacer headed in Marco Asensio’s corner in the 57th minute and the partisan Andalusian crowd thought Spain could get back in it.
They certainly seemed keen when furious players surrounded referee Szymon Marciniak of Poland, demanding a penalty after Pickford had clambered all over Rodrigo retrieving a horrid mistake
Initially, he got caught in possession.
He compounded this by trying to escape with a Cruyff turn inside his own penalty area. Such things rarely end well and this was no exception.
Pickford lost the ball, Rodrigo shaped for an easy goal, Pickford climbed all over him to prevent it, succeeding in knocking the ball out for a corner. It looked like a penalty, it should have been a penalty, it wasn’t a penalty. Spain went bananas.
Yet, somehow, England held firm. Joe Gomez and Harry Maguire were not flawless, but steadfast. The work of the midfield was outstanding. The full backs were tireless.
And before this was played out backs to the wall, England showed sensational counter-attacking smarts to race to a 3-0 half-time lead. Here was Southgate’s revolution in action.
An extraordinarily young team, playing enterprising, intelligent football against one of the best teams in the world — away. He has even, at last, brought the best out of Sterling. Even taking into account England’s exploits at the World Cup, this was the high water mark of Southgate’s era.
This is what he has been working towards for two years now.
You wait three years for a Sterling goal and then two come along at once. Old joke, sure, but who can resist it in the circumstances?
It was October 9, 2015, when Sterling last scored for his country, against Estonia. His previous and only other goal had come against Lithuania. It was a lousy return for a player who scores for fun in a Manchester City shirt these days and the opposition was ordinary, too.
But this was no mere kick up the Baltics. Two goals, in Spain, before half time. That is the level of excellence that has been demanded of Sterling since he emerged in the build-up to the 2014 World Cup. Perhaps this game will prove a turning point for him in an England shirt.
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