A penalty from Wayne Rooney was just about enough for England to secure a 1-0 international friendly win over Norway on Wednesday, in front of a half-empty Wembley crowd left unimpressed by the spectacle.
Barely 40,000 fans turned up for the Three Lions’ first game since their disappointing World Cup campaign in the summer, an attendance that could only be interpreted as a comment on the disdain currently felt for Roy Hodgson’s squad. And the home side did little to dispel that notion until Raheem Sterling was fouled midway through the second half, with Rooney—in his first game as the permanent captain—dispatching the subsequent penalty with the minimum of fuss.
It was the Manchester United forward's 41st international goal, leaving him needing just nine more to break Sir Bobby Charlton’s national team record.
The goal, coupled with a change in formation to accommodate a raft of substitutes, seemed to enliven England, who belatedly gave the subdued crowd something to get excited about in the final 15 minutes. But it did not mask an otherwise sluggish performance.
Afterwards, Rooney told ITV:
It could have been better. The first half we moved the ball quite well but they sat back and made it difficult for us.
We started the second half fairly sloppy, but we got the win in the end. We have got a lot of young players in the team and we are still learning.
Hodgson reacted to the disappointment of the summer by going back to the basics, setting his side out in a familiar 4-4-2 formation that paired Rooney and Daniel Sturridge in attack and saw John Stones slot in at right-back due to injuries in other positions.
Jordan Henderson and Jack Wilshere were paired in the centre of the park, with Sterling and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain tasked with providing the width.
Norway, also looking for form and experience ahead of the start of their European Championship qualification campaign next week, named a relatively inexperienced side—with Vegard Forren and Havard Nordtveit (formerly of Southampton and Arsenal respectively) the central defensive partnership on which coach Per-Mathias Hogmo was hoping to anchor his side.
For much of the first half, and indeed the early part of the second, it was a strategy that appeared to work, with a stiff home side struggling to break down their well-organised opponents, who were also creating some dangerous openings on the counter-attack.
Leighton Baines failed to find the target with a fourth-minute free-kick, but beyond that gilt-edged chances were few and far between, with the left-back coming the closest to a first-half goal as his low shot from eight yards out was deflected over the crossbar by a lunging Norwegian defender.
Beyond that however England were frustrated in their attacking pursuits, with Sturridge snatching at a couple of good openings as Gary Cahill also failed to capitalise on a good chance inside the opposition box.
International friendlies are usually accompanied by a raft of half-time substitutions but on this occasion, perhaps with both coaches looking to give their starting XIs a bit of time on the pitch, there was not one. Instead they did not come until after Rooney’s opener, a breaking of the deadlock that reinvigorated a stagnant contest and ensured a more open finish than the 70 minutes that had preceded it.
Norway can have few complaints about the penalty decision, especially after Jack Wilshere was denied what appeared to be a similarly clear-cut foul during the first half. Sterling broke free down the left and surged into the box, tempting full-back Omar Elabdellaoui into a challenge for the ball he was never going to win. The defender missed the ball and took his man, with the referee having no hesitation in pointing to the spot.
Rooney stepped up and beat Orjan Nyland high to his right, getting his captaincy off to a solid start.
"I was always confident I was going to score," the forward added. "I knew which corner I was going for, and I put my foot through it."
That goal then saw Roy Hodgson look to his bench, with Fabian Delph and Calum Chambers both given their senior debuts as Danny Welbeck also got a few minutes on the pitch. The new Arsenal forward in particular made an immediate impact, forcing a fine save from Nyland as he saw a lot of the ball ahead of what now appeared to be more a diamond formation.
Indeed, England perhaps should have doubled their advantage before the game finished—with Rooney squandering one brilliant opening before his eventual substitution.
England's match against Norway (1-0 victory) had the lowest attendance in the new Wembley (since 2007) ever: 40,181 #ENGNOR— Infostrada Sports (@InfostradaLive) September 3, 2014
But a positive - and there was one - was Sterling. Give him two years and he will be a world beater - makes you get off your seat. #EngvNor— James Masters (@Masters_JamesD) September 3, 2014
The final whistle brought muted applause from the increasingly sparse crowd, but Hodgson and his players will perhaps have expected that. They will have to win back the faith and enthusiasm of the fans with their performances in qualifying, with a victory over Switzerland next week as good a place to start as any.
This game offered little in the way of long-term encouragement, but Hodgson will be relieved that the attendance was arguably the most embarrassing aspect of the night. If he can find a midfield system that plays to his individuals’ strengths—and it remains doubtful that the 4-4-2 does—things can surely only improve from here.
Afterwards Hodgson said:
I thought in the first half we were very dominant. We asked a lot of questions of them, but they made life difficult for us as we knew they would.
We started the second half very poorly, but we got ourselves going again and, after the injection of [the substitutes] and a slight change of system ... in the end I thought we were worthy of the victory.
|Per Ciljan Skjelbred||7|
|Ruben Yttergard Jenssen||6|
|Mats Moller Daehli||7|
|Per Egil Flo||6|
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England begin their European Championship qualification campaign with a trip to face Switzerland on Monday.
Norway, meanwhile, host Italy in their own curtain-raiser in Oslo on Tuesday.
All quotes taken from ITV's live broadcast of the match.