ENGLAND 1, CZECH REPUBLIC 0
Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling has suddenly become a national treasure as he almost single-handedly earned propelled England into the last 16 of the European Championships.
Sterling’s match-winning goals against Croatia and the Czech Republic enabled England to top Group D.
And while Sterling’s form for club was patchy in 2020-21, he certainly produced the goods for England as this was his 14th goal in the last 19 internationals.
Sterling also became the first player to score the opening two goals at a tournament for only the second time, the other being Alan Shearer at Euro 1996.
His goal helped see off the spirited Czechs and, more importantly, enabled England to remain at Wembley for possibly three of their next four games should they go all the way to the final.
Had they not won the group, England would have had to hit the road until possibly returning home for the final.
Yet on an absorbing night, the Czech kicked off as group leaders but finished third, England were second and went top and Croatia went from third to second as Scotland bowed out.
Of most immediate concern, however, is the last 16 tie, a potential blockbuster against a team from the group of death, France, Germany, Portugal or Hungary.Embed from Getty Images
Sterling said: “I think there are positives from the game. We kept the ball better today. It gave us more attacking options. We got in the gaps really well, played some good football and got the goal we needed.
“I had the chance in the first half and the keeper came out quickly so I had to lift it. I have to put that away, but I got my goal in the end.
“Jack (Grealish) and Bukayo (Saka) got in the pockets really well, turned and were positive. It is brilliant to have these players around you who can create goals. Different players are needed for different games and those two that came in were massive and did what they needed to do.
“If you don’t concede goals, you win football matches. You just need to score at the other end. People were disappointed in the Scotland game a few days ago, but we didn’t concede. The most important thing was to win the group. It is tournament football and it will be difficult but we need to do what we are doing.
“At some point you have to face the best teams. It is about challenging yourselves.”
Manchester United captain Harry Maguire, returning after injury, said: “We’ve set out to win the group and we’ve done that. Seven points from three games.
“Can we play better? Of course we can. Will we improve? We’ll do everything we can. Three clean sheets has been solid. The fundamentals are there and now we’ve got to tidy up in every part of our game. I still think there’s a little bit more we can get out of each other and push each other.
“It’s been tough to watch. I don’t like watching football matches so to be back on the pitch is something I love doing and to be at Wembley in the first time for me playing in a European Championship, it’s a good feeling and it’s all the hard work that I’ve put in that I’ve been able to play 90 minutes.”
Southgate was satisfied to win the group, but admitted England have yet to hit their peak.
He said: “There is more to come from us, definitely. We have not scored from a set play yet which I know people laughed at with us only scoring from them. They are crucial in big matches, and we have to get those nailed. We are not fluent but we have moments where we look a good side.
“The Czechs are a really good side. They use the ball well and are really tough to break down.
“All of our next opponents will be different games and different sorts of tests. There is a lot of good things we are doing. We are getting minutes for a lot of the players. Ninety minutes for Harry Maguire was important tonight. Jordan Henderson getting 45 minutes is a step forward. A lot of positives.
“It is great to be having more supporters in that is for sure. Who knows if that will be a good or not. We wanted to win the group and stay at Wembley, and we will wait to see who we play.”
On the loss of Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, he added: “We hadn’t finalised everything as we got the shout during training (over the players needing to isolate).
“We have been super impressed with Bukayo Saka throughout the month. He was excellent up at Middlesbrough and we have liked him with and without the ball. His receiving tonight under pressure was fantastic.”
England had four changes from the side that drew with Scotland last time out.
Grealish made his first start of Euro 2020 while Maguire returns from injury. Saka and Kyle Walker was also called up.
Phil Foden, who is on a yellow card, was not included in the squad as a precaution. Mount was self-isolating while Reece James and Tyrone Mings dropped to the bench.
As expected, Harry Kane again led the line while Ben Chilwell was also self-isolating.
The Czechs named an unchanged side from the one that drew 1-1 with Croatia last time out.
That meant Patrik Schick, who has scored three goals so far at Euro 2020, led the front line.
Southgate took charge of his 57th match as England manager, surpassing the total of Roy Hodgson (56) in the process.
He also equalled the same number of caps he earned as player for the Three Lions and is already the only man to both play and manage 50 or more games for England.
England were looking to keep clean sheets in every group stage match at a major tournament for only the third time. The last time they did it was in the second group stage in 1982 which was just two matches.
The only other time they’ve done it in the opening three-game group of a tournament was 1966 and that ended well.
The Czech Republic and England were in the same qualifying group for Euro 2020. England won 5-0 at Wembley and the Czech Republic won 2-1 in Prague but they were facing each other in a major tournament for the first time.
The Czechs had conceded nine goals in their three previous games at Wembley against England, scoring only two (D1 L2). Their only previous major tournament game at Wembley was the final of Euro 96 when they lost 2-1 to Germany in extra time.
England, whose opening two performances would be best described as lukewarm, almost made a dream start to settle the nerves.
Sterling was put clean through in the second minute by Luke Shaw and lobbed goalkeeper Tomas Vaclic only to see the ball strike the far upright.
But the Manchester City striker was not to be denied when he struck the opening blow in the 12th minute and what proved to be the decisive one, his fourth goal against the Czechs.
Grealish provided the assist with magic on the left and a hanging cross to the far post which Sterling headed home from a tight angle.
Sterling became the first player to score the opening two goals at a tournament for only the second time, the other being Alan Shearer at Euro 1996.
There was a much higher tempo from England as they looked a threat each time they attacked.
Kane had a chance when he cut inside and his fierce shot was beaten out by Pickford as England looked to build on their lead.
The Czechs had to wait almost half an hour before having their first goal attempt when a 30-yard drive from Tomas Holes forced a decent full-length save from Jordan Pickford.
And that was soon followed by Tomas Soucek having an effort fly not far wide.
Vaclic had to be alert to turn Luke Shaw’s deflected cross for a corner as it might have crept in at the near post.
England made a change at the restart as Declan Rice made way for Jordan Henderson.
The second period lacked the sparkle of the opening half as England lacked the movement and inventive play from the first 45 minutes.
Southgate’s response was a double switch mid-half as Sterling and Grealish were replaced by Marcus Rashford and Jude Bellingham.
England had a penalty shout rejected when Maguire claimed he had been shoved off the ball but, incredibly, there was not one goal attempt from either side in the first half hour of the second period.
Southgate made a fourth change with 11 minutes left as Mings was introduced for John Stones.
There was a belated goal attempt in the 83rd minute from substitute Tomas Pekhart.
Jadon Sancho made his long-awaited Euro debut with six minutes left when he took over from Saka
England were denied a second and match clinching goal when Henderson had an effort ruled out for offside, it would have been his first for his country.
Sancho, Rashford and Bellingham linked but the Liverpool captain had strayed beyond the line.
England, incredibly, did not muster a goal attempt in the second period but they defended well and Sterling’s goal proved the group clincher.