By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Spain began a new era under Luis Enrique in impressive fashion as they came from a goal down to outplay England in a 2-1 win in their Nations League opener at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
Eight weeks after their memorable World Cup run was ended by Croatia in the semi-finals, the optimism sweeping England looked justified as Marcus Rashford opened the scoring after 11 minutes.
But Spain, featuring only five of the players that started their last-16 World Cup penalty shootout defeat by Russia, hit back before halftime through Saul Niguez and Rodrigo.
The second half was overshadowed by a nasty-looking injury sustained by England left back Luke Shaw who needed lengthy treatment after a clash of heads.
Spain threatened to stretch their lead as they dominated possession but England finished strongly with Rashford wasting a great chance to equalise when he fired straight at David de Gea and then having a goal by substitute Danny Welbeck disallowed deep into stoppage time.
England’s defeat was their first in their last 25 competitive fixtures at Wembley.
England and Spain will also face World Cup runners-up Croatia in League A Group 4 of the UEFA’s new tournament designed to add spice to the international calendar.
There was an expectant mood in the 81,000 crowd as the game kicked off following the presentaion of the World Cup Golden Boot trophy to home captain Harry Kane by England’s popular coach Gareth Southgate.
England responded to go ahead in the 11th minute with a goal of stunning quality and one which spoke volumes for the brand of football Southgate is trying to establish.
Playing out from the back rather than hoofing clear, England worked the ball to Kane who then found the marauding Shaw on the left and his pass was perfrct for Rashford to slot past his Manchester United team mate De Gea.
The home fans were still buzzing about the opener when Spain levelled two minutes later after a flowing move of their own — Saul Niguez shooting past Jordan Pickford after Thiago Alcantara’s neat cut back.
Spain’s easy-on-the-eye style began to pick holes in England as the likes of Isco, Alcantara and Saul Niguez began to pin back the hosts.
England began to chase shadows and when Kieran Trippier dived in to foul Marcos Alonso in the 32nd minute, the resulting free kick by Alcantara caught the home defence napping as Rodrigo stole in at the near post to guide home.
De Gea produced an acrobatic save to dent Rashford a second goal shortly afterwards but Spain ended the half on top.
England were forced into a change early on in the second half after a sickening clash of heads left Shaw needing seven minutes of treatment by a posse of medics before being carried off the pitch on a stretcher. Danny Rose came on to replace him.
The incident silenced the crowd and seemed to distract the hosts whose sloppiness invited Spanish pressure.
England weathered the storm though and with Spain content to sit back, they pressed late on for an equaliser and should have had one when Welbeck rolled home after De Gea’s fumble only to be harshly penalised for fouling the keeper.
There was much to ponder for Southgate who has now seen his side lose three matches in a row against Croatia, Belgium and now Spain — proof they are still a work in progress.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman, editing by Pritha Sarkar)