Gareth Southgate’s men were brought down from their World Cup high by Spain, but England’s UEFA Nations League defeat was overshadowed by a nasty-looking injury to Luke Shaw.
The Three Lions got the reception they deserved at Wembley as they returned to action for the first time since equalling their best-ever World Cup performance on foreign soil.
But Spain gave Southgate an illustration of the work still required as Saul Niguez and Rodrigo secured the visitors a 2-1 comeback win after Marcus Rashford had opened the scoring in their first-ever Nations League match.
This was England’s first competitive home loss since Steve McClaren’s men fell to Croatia in a crunch qualifier in November 2007, but the inauspicious start to Group A4 paled into insignificance when compared to Shaw’s injury.
The 23-year-old produced a world-class pass for Rashford’s opener on his first international start since September 2015 – just a week before the hideous injury that he this week revealed nearly cost him his leg.
But Shaw’s assured return to England duty came to a shuddering halt minutes into second half.
The left-back required lengthy treatment after colliding with Dani Carvajal and hitting the deck, eventually leaving the field on a stretcher and wearing an oxygen mask.
The Football Association said it is not as serious as it looked, but the shock naturally took the sting out of the second half.
England pushed on in the closing stages but could not find an equaliser, with substitute Danny Welbeck seeing a goal ruled out deep in stoppage-time.
Shaw’s wellbeing was on most people’s minds as they left Wembley on a night that had started so positively.
Flag-waving fans cheered captain Harry Kane as he picked up the Golden Boot for his World Cup exploits, with the noise raising several notches in the 11th minute.
Smart build-up was followed by Kane spraying the ball wide to the returning Shaw, who sent an exceptional low ball across for Rashford to sweep home.
Jose Mourinho smiled after two Manchester United players combined for an England goal for the first time since November 2012 – but hope that this would be a straightforward night only lasted minutes.
Carvajal burst down the right and past Shaw and played in Rodrigo, whose cutback was powered out of Jordan Pickford’s reach by Saul.
It was a gut punch that did not throw England off, although Spain’s midfield class was making the home side’s defence wobble.
Kane had the ball taken off his toe and saw an attempted comfortably denied by David De Gea, before the striker was found wanting at the other end.
As Thiago Alcantara whipped in a free-kick from the left, Rodrigo darted away from the England captain and directed home at the near post.
De Gea prevented it being a short-lived advantage by producing a superb close-range stop from Rashford’s header to hush those doubting whether the Manchester United goalkeeper should be Spain’s number one.
England re-grouped when play resumed for the second half, but within two minutes Shaw’s injury changed the complexion of the evening.
Attempting to win a duel, the England left-back’s head appeared to hit Carvajal’s hip and then bounced off the turf. The impact was audible from the stands.
Shaw received lengthy treatment from more than 10 medical staff, before being carefully lifted onto a stretcher and taken off the field to applause from all four corners of Wembley.
It was a gut-wrenching moment that naturally took the edge off the majority of the second period.
Thiago came agonisingly close for Luis Enrique’s new-look Spain, while Kane was trying to drag his side forwards.
The England skipper looked to have unlocked Spain’s defence in the 81st minute as he put Rashford through, only for the striker to shoot straight at De Gea.
Rashford was then denied superbly by De Gea’s feet minutes later, but the offside flag would have denied the striker even if his United team-mate had not.
England pushed for a late equaliser and thought they had eked one out deep into the nine minutes of stoppage-time.
De Gea’s attempt to claim a high ball ended with it bouncing off Welbeck, with the substitute turning to score. England celebrated the late goal and were furious to see it ruled out.