“I can only see a Spain win” predicted the oracle that is Paul Merson. For once most agreed, Spain came into this game unbeaten in 38 straight competitive games at home, a run stretching back to 2003, their last home game being a 6-0 hiding of Croatia last month. England meanwhile hadn’t won in Spain since Gary Lineker’s 4 goal masterclass in 1987. After their flat World Cup Spain have been revitalised by former Barcelona boss Luis Enrique and warmed up for this game by blitzing Wales 4-1 in Cardiff. It all seemed to be pointing one way.
Gareth Southgate told his players to be brave with the ball and they certainly did that, producing the best half of attacking football we’ve seen from England since Munich in 2001 as Spain were split asunder with three clinical strikes to set up a groundbreaking 3-2 win.
Southgate stuck with the side and formation that drew in Croatia, bar the enforced switches of Harry Winks for Jordan Henderson, Joe Gomez for John Stones and the one voluntary change of Kieran Trippier for Kyle Walker.
But it was the hosts that settled the quicker and could would have taken an early lead but for Jordan Pickford’s acrobatic save from Marcos Alonso. But England grew into the game with Harry Winks looking incisive in midfield and Eric Dier shielding the defence. Then on 18 minutes they caught Spain out when Marcus Rashford ran at the Spanish defence and delivered a perfect pass for Raheem Sterling on the edge of the box, who blasted into the top corner for 1-0. It ended Sterling’s 3 year goal drought with England and suddenly the shackles were off, England’s front three were full of running and Spain looked in trouble every time they pushed forward.
But Spain continued to have the lions share of possession and might have restored parity but for Marcus Asensio blazing his shot straight at Pickford. The England ‘keeper then delivered a perfect long pass (not punt!) up field to Harry Kane who held the ball up in front of a posse of Spain defenders before releasing the ball into the path of Rashford who tidily steered the ball past club-mate David De Gea, 2-0 after just 29 minutes.
Spain’s confidence was battered and England were playing some nice expressive football and picked Spain apart for a beautiful third. It started with Ross Barkley who dinked a clever ball over Spain’s back line for Harry Kane who centred to an unmarked Sterling for 3-0 with just 38 minutes played. England were in dreamland and Enrique looked stunned.
But Spain were always likely to fight back after the break and continued to monopolise possession but without looking seriously threatening, whilst Sterling had what appeared a good penalty claim waved away. But Spain made the breakthrough with the introduction of the in-form Pablo Alcacer. The Borussia Dortmund striker had only been on the pitch one minute when he connected with a clever near post corner to head Spain back into the game on 58 minutes.
Spain were pressing with renewed confidence and the games most controversial moment soon followed. Pickford was caught over elaborating in his penalty area and let in Rodrigo, before pulling back the striker who hit his shot wide. To enormous protests the referee waved play on. It was a clear penalty but with no VAR it wasn’t the easiest snap decision for the referee, perhaps giving England the slice of luck they lacked at Wembley when Danny Welbeck’s late equalizer was wrongly chalked off.
England settled and although Spain continued to push, England regained their composure, with Spain producing few clear-cut chances and England’s forward line causing plenty of problems. England starting making defensive changes with Walker and Trent Alexander-Arnold introduced. Spain produced a barrage but England held firm until the 97th minute when Sergio Ramos steered home a header with the last touch of the game, it finished 3-2.
It represents the biggest scalp taken in the Southgate era and surely puts to bed the notion England can’t compete with top-class sides, those who claimed England were lucky to reach the semi-finals in Russia cannot deny this was a competitive win away to one of world football’s best technical teams. Next for England it’s a friendly with the USA at Wembley whilst Spain travel to Croatia for their final Nations League group game. If Spain win they go through to the semi-finals but anything less and England will top the group if they can beat Croatia at Wembley three days later.
England may not be finished article but they are unquestionably emerging as serious contenders for the years ahead as Sterling silenced his critics to win the Thriller in Sevilla.