England vs Norway match report: Wayne Rooney scores from the spot in laboured display at half-empty Wembley
England 1 Norway 0
Raheem Sterling will tell you that as a child he would ride his bike around the building site of new Wembley and wonder what it would be like to play there. He could hardly have imagined that before he turned 20 it would fall to him to dig the Football Association, Roy Hodgson and the national team out of a large hole of their own making.
The boy from the St Raphael's Estate, a short trolley push from Wembley's branch of Ikea, was the main man here, one of those occasions when England found themselves desperately short of inspiration. The first game back from a lacklustre tournament can be dangerous for an England team short on confidence, but nothing can be more corrosive for the FA than indifference - and in front of a crowd of 40,181 the Mexican waves started uncomfortably early.
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On nights such as these England need a spark; something to remind those who have hauled themselves out beyond the North Circular why it is they keep coming back to follow the fortunes of this ever-embattled national team. They needed something to remind them what sets English football apart from, with the greatest respect, the toilers of Norway.
In the final analysis that was Sterling, who won the penalty which Wayne Rooney scored for the only goal of the game. If this is a new era then it looks painfully like the last new era. Thank goodness for Sterling, the only exceptional talent to emerge from the English academy system in recent years. At least he is turning potential into talent at a significant pace.
Hodgson was angry in his post-match press conference, clearly stewing on the questions asked him previously by television crews. Pushed on England's total of two shots on target, he responded “Don't give me that. Two shots on target? What about the shots that people threw themselves in front of? Don't hit me with statistics.” But even he had to concede that the team is not scoring enough goals.
On the bench, he had looked anxious especially during an untidy start to the second half when Norway even managed a couple of attempts on goal By then it was obvious that anything short of a victory - England's first since they beat Peru here on 30 May - would only increase the pressure on Hodgson.
Instead they go to Switzerland on Sunday, for their first Euro 2016 qualifier a day later as a team that has at lasted started winning matches again. England are 11 Fifa ranking places beneath the Swiss and that inferiority complex seemed to manifest itself in a veiled warning that from Hodgson his team might park the bus. “Switzerland will need to beat us,” Hodgson said. “If anything, we might be Norway on Monday. We might be pushed back and can't attack and dominate for long periods, as we did today. I don't know. But it might be.”
He has already lost Jack Colback from his squad, returning back to Newcaste for treatment on a kick to his calf in training. Hodgson is light on midfielders in a squad that now numbers just 20 players following the earlier withdrawal of goalkeeper Ben Foster.
One smattering of supporters aside, the top tier at Wembley was empty and at half-time one wondered if all of them were coming back. The first half had its bright points, just about all of them involving Sterling and Daniel Sturridge and yet there never seemed any chance of England cutting loose.
Too much of it was one-paced and cautious against a Norway team that simply looked happy to be there. There were too many moments when England's centre-halves, or Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere looked up with the ball at their feet and saw nothing moving in front of them. If ever there was a time for England to take risks this was it, but only really Sterling seemed prepared to do it.
The teenager did his best to ignite England with his pace and directness. He did it on 15 minutes by slipping the ball back to Sturridge with a back heel and creating the room for a shot for his Liverpool team-mate that was well-blocked by Havard Nordtveit. Even better was the chipped pass from the left from Sterling that Sturridge took down and tried unsuccessfully to drop over the top of goalkeeper Orjan Haskjold Nyland and under the crossbar.
Sturridge might have done better on both occasions but at least he found himself in a position to get a sight of goal. Rooney barely located the space to get a shot off in the first half. The England captain realised that he needed to get his side moving in this most awkward of games but he found it hard to get on the ball in dangerous positions.
It was Sterling again who guided the ball down into the path of Leighton Baines on 30 minutes. The left-back tried to pick his spot with the instep as he entered the penalty area and for the second time the Norwegian defender Nordtveit was able to dive in and block the shot. Even in the area, England seemed ponderous, but that was nothing to their build-up play.
Jack Wilshere tumbles in the box during England's 1-0 win over Norway
Hodgson will point to a foul by Nordtveit on Wilshere who was clearly tripped in the penalty area, four minutes before half-time. The Portuguese referee Jorge Sousa did not give it which summed up a frustrating half for Wilshere who had at least tried to inject some pace into England's play.
Half-time heralded one change: Norway had their first attempts on goal. The first was a header from the former Manchester United academy boy Josh King, now at Blackburn Rovers, who met a corner and directed it well at goal - possibly with a touch off the head of John Stones - and was denied by an excellent one-handed save from Hart.
The England goalkeeper was equal to the task minutes later when Cahill fell and scuffed a backpass with far too little weight on it. That allowed King a run at goal and he wriggled past Phil Jones' emergency covering run far too easily. Again it was Hart, coming out decisively behind Jones who blocked what looked like an effort for the far post.
It was that warning that things could get worse, in fact they could get a lot worse. The murmuring crowd at Wembley had stifled its frustrations at half-time but there was no prospect of the fragile peace outlasting a Norway goal. Their chances had come from a set-piece and a free-kick, but nonetheless they had threatened England.
The breakthrough came when Sterling managed to scamper a pace ahead of Omar Elabdellaoui down the left channel of the penalty area which was enough to draw a dangerous tackle from the full-back. When it came, the contact with Sterling was clear and the winger went down. He is not a natural penalty-box faller, rather he has the school-yard instinct to stumble on and for that reason referees trust him. The lenient Portuguese referee gave him the penalty.
The responsibility of scoring them in the post-Steven Gerrard era now rests with Rooney and he dispatched this one with confidence to take him to 41 goals for England, past Michael Owen and into fourth place in the all-time goalscorers' list. He was summoned to the bench a minute later.
There were debuts for Calum Chambers and Fabian Delph in the closing stages. Danny Welbeck, another substitute, turned Vegard Forren beautifully on the edge of the area and had his shot saved. Sterling was still leading the breakaways in the last few minutes, which tells you a lot about a young man who has become crucial to Hodgson's side.
Man of the match: Sterling.
Referee J Sousa (Portugal).
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