PARIS • England, world champions France, European champions and title-holders Portugal and Belgium all enjoyed winning starts to their Nations League top-tier campaign on Saturday, even if there were clear signs of rust following the coronavirus shutdown.
In Reykjavik, the Three Lions needed a stoppage-time penalty by Raheem Sterling to beat Iceland 1-0 in Group 2.
It salvaged England from another embarrassing result against the Nordic side, whose 2-1 victory in the last 16 of Euro 2016 remains one of football’s most famous results.
However, there was a huge slice of luck as Gareth Southgate’s men not only survived going down to 10 men after Kyle Walker was sent off for two yellow cards 20 minutes from time, but saw Birkir Bjarnason blaze over a spot-kick soon after Sterling’s successful effort.
All of Iceland’s good work was undone in the 89th minute when Sverrir Ingason was harshly dismissed for a second booking, leading to Sterling’s penalty.
But the drama did not end there as straight from the kick-off, Joe Gomez was adjudged to have bundled over Holmbert Fridjonsson inside the area, only for Bjarnason to miss.
Admitting his players “got away with it”, England manager Southgate said: “It was an unnecessary red card.
“We leave here with the win but a bit flat.”
France saw off Sweden by the same scoreline, but it was just as unconvincing with Kylian Mbappe scoring via their only shot on target in their Group 3 clash in Solna.
“It was a committed match, not a great match,” said Les Bleus coach Didier Deschamps.
“It was a good back-to-school game, considering the fitness levels.”
Portugal shrugged off the absence of captain Cristiano Ronaldo to thrash Croatia 4-1, while world No. 1 Belgium came away from Denmark with a 2-0 win.
The Juventus forward was missing with an infected toe – caused by a bee sting, according to Italian media – but the Selecao were still too good for their tired-looking Group 3 opponents.
Croatia are rebuilding after a string of international retirements following their appearance at the 2018 World Cup final and were also missing the veteran midfield pair of skipper Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic.
Portugal took full advantage of their lack of experience, hitting the woodwork three times and netting through Joao Cancelo, Diogo Jota, Joao Felix and Andre Silva.
“It has been a long time since we all got together and some players came straight from their vacation, but the team responded well,” said Atletico Madrid forward Felix.
Belgium also did not miss the presence of star midfielder Kevin de Bruyne, who chose to accompany his wife as she gave birth to their daughter and third child, whose name was revealed on Instagram as Suri.
The Red Devils handed the Danes, coached by Kasper Hjulmand for the first time, a first home loss in four years via strikes by Jason Denayer and Dries Mertens in Group 2.
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