England up and running at Euro 2020 as Raheem Sterling’s strike sinks Croatia
Football’s coming home, according to the fans inside Wembley. We have heard that before and so the usual disclaimers must apply. But this was an encouraging start for England, at the very least: the first time they have won the opening game of a European Championship – at the 10th time of asking.
It was a deserved victory, too, against surely the strongest opposition Gareth Southgate’s team will face in the group stage. It was an occasion when revenge was in the air, with one or two of England’s players recalling beforehand the semi-final defeat by Croatia in the 2018 World Cup. It is hard to see that anything will ever compensate for that and certainly not a win at this stage of a competition.
It was more about setting an upbeat tone and, thanks to Raheem Sterling’s first tournament goal, England did that. The moment to fire English dreams came as the match rather meandered, a bright start by England having ebbed.
Kalvin Phillips, the game’s outstanding performer, took a smart ball forward from Kyle Walker in the 57th minute and moved away from Croatian challengers before slipping the perfect pass to Sterling. As throughout, Sterling’s movement was excellent and he finished in front of Sime Vrsaljko and past Dominik Livakovic.
Southgate’s defence had an experimental feel, with John Stones alongside Tyrone Mings for the first time in the middle and Kieran Trippier surprisingly preferred at left-back to Ben Chilwell, who did not make the bench, and Luke Shaw.
According to Opta, Trippier had started four games previously in the position, three of them for England this season. It was a move with defensive solidity in mind. Trippier did not get forward on the overlap – rather Mason Mount pulled to the left when Sterling wandered infield – and neither did Walker from right-back.
Yet the defence kept their shape and offered robust protection in front of Jordan Pickford, who was not required to make a serious save. At 1-0 it was possible to wonder whether Croatia would claw their way back, as they had done at the World Cup, but the equaliser never felt on. Ante Rebic dragged wide when well placed on 66 minutes and the substitute Mario Pasalic thrashed high at the very end. That was pretty much it, in terms of Croatia’s threat.
On this evidence Zlatko Dalic’s team are not as dangerous as they were in 2018. Seven of those who had played for them in the World Cup semi-final started here and, for England, it was always going to be a question of putting pressure on Croatia’s midfield three, of not allowing Luka Modric or his sidekicks to play through or in behind them. They succeeded.
Southgate’s team brought an intensity at the outset, feeding off the energy of the home crowd, which Modric had described as an “unfair advantage”. Those in attendance made themselves heard and it was pleasing that loud cheers from the majority all but drowned out the boos of some when the players took the knee in the fight against racism. That said, there was no escaping the fact that there were boos.
England’s emergence from the tunnel and the pre-match bellowing of the national anthem were genuinely uplifting moments and there was almost another only five minutes in when Sterling made a clever run on to a throw-in from the left and fed Phil Foden, who was one-on-one with Josko Gvardiol. Foden darted inside, a flash of quicksilver movement, and he shaped a curler for the far corner. It flicked off Gvardiol’s outstretched toe and came back off the upright.
Phillips drove England’s encouraging opening period, which lasted for 20 minutes or so. There were assured touches from him, strength in the challenge and an ability to move with the ball high up. He also worked Livakovic in the eighth minute when he caught a volley cleanly on the edge of the area after a corner had been half-cleared.
England dropped off in the second part of the first half, perhaps feeling the searing temperatures; Southgate’s lineup had featured five players who started the Champions League final two weeks ago and had not kicked a ball in competitive action since.
Sterling was able to stretch the Croatia defence and the ball over the top was sometimes on for him. He won a free-kick just before the interval when he panicked Duje Caleta-Car into handling but Trippier could not repeat his execution from the World Cup semi-final, hitting the wall rather than the top corner.
Croatia were able to slow the game, which suited them, but England found incision through Sterling and, confidence pepped, they could have gone further in front shortly afterwards. Mount crossed for Harry Kane at the far post and only a last-gasp intervention by Gvardiol denied him. It was not the captain’s day.
England had largely held Croatia at arm’s length in the first half; save for one half-chance for Ivan Perisic after Vrsaljko beat Trippier and Mings missed a clearance. The winger lifted high. Could they continue to do so after the goal? The answer was yes, and with a measure of comfort.
Sterling ought to have made the game safe on 74 minutes only to blaze over after Mings had nodded a free-kick back to him. The forward can frustrate with his end product but there is no doubt he gets into positions, that he keeps on coming back. One goal was enough for him and England.