England got away with this. Or, more specifically, Kyle Walker and Joe Gomez got away with this. They were the most relieved men in Reykjavik on an underwhelming occasion when Raheem Sterling’s late penalty helped Gareth Southgate’s team to begin their Nations League campaign with a victory.
Walker had put England in peril when he lunged into a 70th minute challenge on Arnór Ingvi Traustason. Already on a yellow card for pulling back Albert Gudmundsson in the first half, he was dicing with danger and when he caught the Iceland winger he knew what was coming. His first England cap since June of last year against Switzerland was disfigured by a red card. For an experienced player, it was a shocking error.
Walker had reason to be grateful to Sterling, his Manchester City teammate, who won and converted the penalty that represented the only dent to Iceland’s resistance. Sterling’s shot after a corner broke to him was charged down with an arm by Sverrir Ingi Ingason, whose anguish at conceding the spot-kick was compounded when he was given a second yellow card for handball. Sterling took the responsibility and out-foxed Hannes Thor Halldórsson with a low kick down the middle.
Yet there would be further drama. Having finally gone in front, England needed to show rock-solid levels of concentration but Gomez erred when he lost his bearings on a high ball forward.
He did not seem to be aware of the substitute Hólmbert Fridjónsson and, when he put his hands on him, it added up to the most galling of penalty concessions.
It was a bad look in this game but imagine the reaction if it had been in knockout tournament football. Thankfully for Gomez and England, Birkir Bjarnason went for the Hollywood, top-corner finish and missed the target, sending the ball over.
Southgate’s players had started brightly and Harry Kane was denied an early opener by an erroneously raised flag. But the game turned into a slog, with England labouring to break down Iceland’s two banks of four. The late drama had scarcely been advertised but Southgate and Sterling were happy to take it.
England know all about what awkward and obdurate opponents Iceland can be. Nobody needs reminding about Euro 2016, when England suffered one of the most humiliating defeats of their history at Iceland’s hands and there were long spells here when they appeared to be butting their heads against a blue wall.
The mitigation was in the unusual timing of the game, jammed in before the Premier League season has started and with players at different stages of their pre-seasons.
Southgate felt that the sharpness had been there in training but he was forced to acknowledge that a competitive game is an altogether different challenge.
It was frustrating to see England fail to raise the tempo after a bright start, with too much side-to-side stuff and little penetration. They were in control of possession throughout but they struggled to get into spaces between the lines.
Iceland had to be given a measure of credit for the way that they closed the game down, even if their lack of adventure was complete and frustrating. The hosts worked tirelessly for each other, with their two strikers more akin to a first line of defence.
Perhaps England were affected by the wrongful disallowing of a sixth minute Kane effort. Certainly, if that had stood, it would have changed the complexion of the occasion.
Sterling crossed from the left and, when the ball ran all the way through for Kane, he poked home at the far post.
Perhaps the assistant referee thought that Eric Dier had touched the cross, which the defender had stretched to reach, but he did not. The replays also showed that Kane had timed his run perfectly. Where was VAR when it was needed?
England also had a big chance on 18 minutes when Declan Rice won the ball, moved it wide to Jadon Sancho and addressed the return pass from a position six yards out and to the right of goal. He swung his shooting foot, missed the ball and felt it bang into his standing leg. Rice burned with embarrassment.
It became the toughest of watches – the kind that England’s supporters have endured more times than they care to mention over the years. Phil Foden could get little going on his debut and Southgate replaced him with Danny Ings on 68 minutes.
Up until that point, England’s only real chance of the second half had followed a Kieran Trippier free-kick which skimmed off Jón Dadi Bödvarsson’s head and squirmed past the post. And when Walker suffered his aberration, England were up against it.
Southgate would introduce Mason Greenwood for his debut as he kept three strikers on the field in search of a winner.
England showed their character and even a few of the dark arts, with James Ward-Prowse seeming to scuff the penalty spot before Bjarnason’s kick. Yet it was also plain they had ridden their luck.