The Nations League was only intended as a mild diversion from the dreary rounds of international friendless, but by the end of 97 exhilarating minutes in Seville, Gareth Southgate’s young England team were entitled to feel differently about how they can play and what they might achieve.
This game in Uefa’s new competition ended with Sergio Ramos scoring a goal with the very last touch, although even the man who has often been able to burst just about anyone’s balloon was unable to bend this this occasion to his will. Perhaps it was the Nations League that gave this game its edge and certainly Southgate’s players responded, beating one of the world’s finest football nations on their own soil – Spain’s first defeat in a competitive home game since June 2003.
They did so as the youngest England XI to be selected since 1959, with Kieran Trippier, at 28, the oldest player and Raheem Sterling, who scored his first two England goals in more than three years, its most capped with 46. They shredded Spain on the counter-attack, the second coming from Marcus Rashford, in an approach honed to take the few chances they knew they would get. By half-time England had less than 30 per cent of the possession and all of the three goals.
It was an extraordinary first 45 minutes, a compelling game in which it was clear that their quality had to be of the highest if England were to survive what was to come – and what was to come was a relentless second half pursuit from Spain. They scored through the substitute Paco Alcacer and then Ramos with a header in the seventh minute of time added on, a chase that was so intense that it might have been easy to forget what had gone before.
That was an attacking sensation from England who made peace with their long periods out of possession and then seized the moments they had it, with a master-class from Harry Kane who showed the kind of resilience every great centre-forward needs. The England captain went to war with Ramos and his Real Madrid defensive partner Nacho and it was Kane who won, leaving the two centre-halves for the most part outfought and out of position, however hard they tried.
There is still a chance that England could win their Nations League group and progress to the finals next summer, and Spain must go to Zagreb now and beat Croatia to put an end to that prospect. You would not bet against them doing so although there were other records that tumbled on this night. It was the first time Spain had conceded three goals in a home competitive game and while they responded in impressive fashion, this was something new for them.
As they came at England in the second half, Southgate switched back to 3-5-2 and settled for just defending the final third. He still found time to give Nathaniel Chalobah his England debut as if it had been promised for a long time. The 23-year-old stepped into one of the most frantic defensive actions he will have ever been part of, but when the referee blew for full-time as Ramos headed back to restart the game, it had all been worth it.