England received a football lesson and yet somehow emerged from their opening match of Group B at the European Under-21 Championship in Herning last night with an invaluable point. The "fight and passion" their players had promised appeared to have proved no match for Spain's class and composure and for most of the second half they were chasing red and blue shadows.
Fabio Capello and the Football Association's director of football development Sir Trevor Brooking, both in attendance, must have winced at how infrequently they had control of the ball and what little use was made of it. Yet with two minutes to play Danny Welbeck equalised Ander Herrera's controversial first-half goal. They play Ukraine next at the same venue on Wednesday before another potentially demanding game against the Czech Republic on Sunday.
Kyle Walker, watched by his Tottenham manager Harry Redknapp, was a force going forward from full-back, and the centre-halves Chris Smalling and Phil Jones, shortly to become Manchester United club-mates, laboured valiantly. Daniel Sturridge proved a willing worker alongside Welbeck in an unexpected 4-4-2 formation, in which the danger was always that England's two central midfielders Michael Mancienne and Jordan Henderson would be outnumbered.
As Spain's captain Javi Martinez sat deep in front of his back four, that was not quite the case, but they still found it mightily difficult to get to grips with the flexible Spanish. Like younger versions of Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta, the midfield pair Thiago Alcantara, a substitute for Barcelona in the Champions' League final, and Herrera refused to stay still for a moment, and passed with complete assurance.
"In the second half, the ball belonged to Spain," Thiago said. It did for much of the first half too, the oddity being that they only scored from a set-piece, a goal that might have been disallowed had Uefa deployed their extra officials for this competition.
England's manager Stuart Pearce, while delighted with his team's bulldog spirit, admitted to disappointment that they had not played to anything like their potential. "We stuck at it and kept going and sometimes you get rewards," he said. "There's more ability in our side than we showed, but the heart was fantastic and we'll be better on Wednesday than we were this evening. We have to show maybe a little more arrogance."
If the pattern was set early, with the Spanish passing and interchanging much as expected, the manner of the opening goal owed little to artistry. It stemmed from England's one early attacking opportunity, in which Smalling had two headers from the opening corner of the game taken by Tom Cleverley. Neither was sufficiently powerful and as Spain broke down the left, Smalling sliced the ball out to concede a corner. Martinez, one of the two World Cup winners in the side and the team's tallest player, arrived to head down and Herrera forced the ball in from close to the far post, with some combination of head and hand. England's players seemed too stunned to protest.
In England's one convincing period, for ten minutes before half-time, Danny Rose drove over two good crosses and David de Gea, the goalkeeper expected to join United after the tournament, distinguished himself with a one-handed save to his right as Walker crossed well for Sturridge to jab at goal.
Spain nevertheless made the first opportunities of the second half. Herrera's shot, already dangerous, became more so when deflecting off Jones and Derby's Frankie Fielding justified his selection as first-choice goalkeeper with a superb save in the top corner of the goal. The flowing passing move a few minutes later was Spain at their best but there were enough bodies in the way to block another shot by Herrera.
Pearce sent on Jack Rodwell for Mancienne, who had found the game passing him by, and Henri Lansbury, now back at Arsenal following his loan at Norwich, replaced Rose. With 20 minutes to play, England were just pleased still to be in some sort of contention, which would not have been the case had Martin Montoya's shot after another fine passing move not flown the other side of Fielding's near post.
The "oles" began soon afterwards but proved premature. In a rare attack, with Pearce screaming at players to push forward, Walker knocked the ball across and for once white shirts outnumbered red ones, allowing Welbeck to turn and calmly side-foot in as Spain looked in vain for an offside flag. Out of nothing, the bulldog breed had made a most unlikely point.
Spain (4-3-3): De Gea (Atlético Madrid); Montoya (Barcelona), Botia (Sporting Gijon), Alvaro Dominguez (Athletico Madrid), Didac (Milan); Herrera (Zaragoza), Javi Martinez (Bilbao), Thiago Alcantara (Barcelona); Mata (Valencia), Adrian (Deportivo), Jeffren (Barcelona).
Substitutes used Parejo for Adrian, 72; Bojan for Jeffren, 80; Diego Capel for Herrera, 86.
England (4-4-2): Fielding (Derby); Walker (Tottenham), Jones (Blackburn), Smalling (Manchester United), Bertrand (Chelsea); Cleverley (Manchester United), Henderson (Liverpool), Mancienne (Hamburg), Rose (Tottenham); Sturridge (Chelsea), Welbeck (Manchester United).
Substitutes used Lansbury for Rose, 67; Rodwell for Mancienne, 67; Sinclair for Cleverley, 81.
Referee M Strombergsson (Sweden).