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Southgate refuses to criticise England after "getting out of jail" in Iceland


It wasn’t Nice. In fact, it was downright ugly.

Even the 90th minute Raheem Sterling penalty that ensured Gareth Southgate avoided the kind of ignominy that befell Roy Hodgson when England came up against Iceland on the French Riviera was as scruffy as it was lucky.

Sterling converted from the spot after Sverrir Ingi Ingason had been harshly adjudged to have handled his close-range blast.

To add insult to injury, Ingason was sent off for a second yellow card offence before Sterling scuffed his shot down the middle as Iceland keeper Hannes Thor Halldorsson sprang to his left.

Even then there was an opportunity for Erik Hamren’s journeymen to inflict another wound on the Three Lions.

Bjarnason was left red-faced after he skied his penalty

Serbian referee Srdjan Jovanovic pointed to the opposite penalty spot in injury-time when Joe Gomez tangled with substitute Samuel Fridjonsson.

But while Birkir Bjarnason’s strike from 12 yards was cleaner than Sterling’s – it was also much too high.

In a group that also includes Belgium and Denmark anything less than an England victory in this opening Nations League encounter would have been a problem for England.

Tuesday night’s trip to Copenhagen will be just as unforgiving.

Southgate was delighted his men prevailed despite a poor performance that reeked of rustiness.

Southgate breathed a sigh of relief after the win

He said: “I am sure people will be hard on the players for their performance – but I won’t be.

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“If we had scored the late penalty and that had been it, we would have been talking about a performance of great character.

“Of course, after they missed a penalty themselves, it feels like we’ve got out of jail.

“But that performance was understandable given the stage of the season the players are at.”

When Kyle Walker was sent off with 20 minutes of his international return still remaining the England boss must have feared that the Thunder Clap would strike again.

Raheem Sterling scored from the spot late on

His team contained only two players aged over 27 – Walker and fellow full-back Kieran Trippier.

Manchester City tyro Phil Foden was handed his debut and James Ward-Prowse his first start.

And perhaps the evening would have taken a different course had Kane not seen a sixth-minute strike incorrectly ruled out for offside.

But this wasn’t really Iceland. It was Iceland reserves.

It was bad enough for Hamren that his Premier League stars Gylfi Sigurdsson and Johan Berg Gudmundsson had preferred to prepare for the new season with Everton and Burnley rather than travel home.

In the warm-up, he lost Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, when the striker who had been England’s nemesis at Euro 2016 pulled a muscle.

Phil Foden made his England debut in midfield

At least the home side had the benefit of VAR not being available in the quaint stadium in Laugardalsvollur.

Kane was clearly onside when he slid in at the far post to nudge home Sterling’s cross.

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“Obviously the disallowed goal had a big bearing on the flow of the game,” said Southgate.

Tired legs and tired minds were sapped further by an Iceland team that hunted the visitors down at every twist and turn.

Declan Rice squandered the best chance of the first half when he miskicked from five yards.

And the only threat after the break came when Millwall’s Jon Dadi Bodvarsson looped a header just past his own goal.

Foden made way for Danny Ings after 68 minutes.

Ward-Prowse had a part to play in the penalty miss

But then Walker’s lung at Arnor Traustason brought him a second yellow card and England were down to 10 men.

Walker apologised to the squad as soon as they reached the dressing room.

Trent Alexander-Arnold immediately replaced Sancho and the shattered Kane made way for Mason Greenwood.

Then, in the dying seconds, England got a break when Sterling’s goal-bound blast struck Ingason on his elbow and the Manchester City winger claimed his 13th international goal.

Bjarnason, the midfielder formerly of Aston Villa, then wasted the opportunity to rescue the home side – after Ward-Prowse had been crafty enough to scuff the penalty spot with his studs.

“I didn’t see James do that, so I can’t comment,” said Southgate. “But what I will say is that we have to be tactically and psychologically more savvy after we have just scored a goal in the last minute.”





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