REYKJAVIK (AFP) – Gareth Southgate admitted England “got away with it” after escaping another embarrassing result against Iceland as Raheem Sterling’s penalty secured a 1-0 win in a dramatic finale to kick off their Nations League campaign on Saturday.
After Sterling opened the scoring in the 92nd minute, Birkir Bjarnason missed a spot-kick for the hosts as both sides were also reduced to 10 men in the final 20 minutes
Four years on from one of English football’s most embarrassing nights in losing 2-1 to Iceland at Euro 2016, the Three Lions were far from the free-scoring force that romped through Euro 2020 qualifying in their first match for 10 months.
Southgate pinpointed a lack of match sharpness with the new Premier League season still a week away for an underwhelming performance, but insisted Kyle Walker and Joe Gomez must learn from mistakes that nearly cost their country.
Recalled for the first time in a year, Walker’s mistimed lunge 20 minutes from time left England a man down.
Then with the 10 men having finally broken the deadlock, Gomez was caught out of possession straight from kick-off and pulled down Holmbert Fridjonsson inside the area.
“The sending off is a key moment because it is very difficult to win games of football when you go down to 10 men. It was an unnecessary red card,” said Southgate.
“It sums the week up, there’s been difficult challenges, we leave here with the win but a bit flat because in the end it feels like we got away with it.” Iceland coach Erik Hamren thought a draw would have been a fairer outcome.
“I’ve been a coach over 40 years and this feels like one of the worst defeats,” he said.
Southgate handed an international debut to Manchester City midfielder Phil Foden, while Southampton’s James Ward-Prowse started for the first time in a competitive fixture for his country in an experimental line-up.
However, there was still plenty of experience and promise in a front three of Harry Kane, Sterling and Jadon Sancho for England to have had a far more comfortable afternoon.
Kane had the ball in the net for what he thought was his 33rd international goal inside six minutes when he bundled in at the back post.
However, the England captain was wrongly flagged for offside and with no VAR in operation, the visitors were denied.
“The goal that is disallowed had a big bearing on the flow of the game,” added Southgate.
“You see the lack of match sharpness and training practice in the last third, which is perfectly understandable.”
Declan Rice missed by a distance England’s biggest chance before stoppage time when he fluffed his lines from Sancho’s cut-back.
Walker’s ill-judged lunge to break up an Icelandic counter-attack not only left his side a man down, but the Manchester City right-back fearing for his international career.
Only a lack of match fitness meant Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold started on the bench, while Kieran Trippier, who has also moved ahead of Walker in Southgate’s pecking order of late, started at left-back in the absence of the injured Ben Chilwell.
“I’ve missed it,” said Walker of his exclusion from Southgate’s previous squads before the coronavirus pandemic curtailed international football for six months.
“I’m an experienced player and I should know I’m on the yellow card, I shouldn’t make a rash challenge like that.
“I’m a seasoned pro and I’ve played a lot of games. I put myself in a situation I shouldn’t have been in.”
Sterling, one of the few survivors from England’s defeat to Iceland in 2016, saved his club teammate’s blushes as his shot was blocked by the arm of Sverrir Ingason, who was also harshly dismissed for a second booking.
With Kane having been replaced by Mason Greenwood, Sterling took responsibility from the spot and coolly rolled his penalty straight down the middle.