Sterling and Phillips Inspire Win in Croatia Opener

Getty Images/Justin Tallis

England 1-0 Croatia

  • England made a winning start to a Euros for the first time in their history with a revengeful win over Croatia
  • Raheem Sterling scored the game’s only goal — his first for England in a major tournament

This one felt different. From the minute there were rumours that two stellar and in-form left-backs were being disregarded in favour of a right-sided player, it felt as though there was a real pragmatic blueprint behind England’s latest clash with bogey team Croatia. Win your one-v-ones, press at the right moments, take your chances when they come. Rallied on by 22,500 fans inside a steaming hot Wembley, Raheem Sterling scored the game’s only goal to ensure England finally won their opener at a Euros at the tenth time of asking.

Croatia and England have a famous recent history against each another, with the Croats getting the rub of the green. But England’s luck has been rather better when playing at Wembley in major tournaments. In 11 games across the 1966 World Cup and Euro 96, they never lost in normal or extra-time. The question was not which Croatia would turn up — the World Cup semi-finalists or the side who have won only two of their last nine games. The question was which England would turn up — the side who hadn’t won in nine Euro openers, or the team so dominant at Wembley in competition games.

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From the off, England were mobile and lively despite the sweltering heat. Phil Foden looked every bit the Paul Gascoigne of 25 years ago as he countered at pace six minutes in. His shot crashed off the post to spare Croatia’s blushes early on. The love train that served the Three Lions so well in Russia threatened to return for a corner two minutes later, but instead it was a midfielder — Kalvin Phillips — whose shot came flying in. A well-struck volley from range that goalkeeper Dominik Livaković parried well.

England’s bright start began to wane late in the first 45, but their back four didn’t put a foot wrong. Tyrone Mings in particular, an unpopular choice as the injured Harry Maguire’s deputy, was note perfect. Big games call for big performances. A real second-half push was needed if Gareth Southgate’s outfit were to secure a statement, revengeful victory.

But a push is what Croatia gave early on, not the Three Lions. Luka Modrić was not at his metronomic best in this fixture, largely because the fabulous Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were on hand to limit his enchanting ability. The former Tottenham Hotspur favourite struck a volley into Jordan Pickford on 55 minutes. Little did he know, it would prove Croatia’s only shot on target all afternoon.

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Just minutes later, Modrić’s peppy minimiser Phillips took a waltz through the midfield, past a few rugged challenges. The Leeds United player noticed Raheem Sterling’s run in-behind just as he was tumbling to ground. A little poke through set up the moment a nation has seemed to be awaiting since… last year when the Euros were supposed to be held? 2018 when the Croats so memorably ended England’s World Cup run? 2007 when the new Wembley was finally completed? Maybe even since 1996 when Wembley last roared on as England graced a major tournament under its nose.

Raheem Sterling MBE stuck the ball past Livaković and kicked off England’s wild celebrations, his 15th England goal the one more than any other that he had dreamed of when he grew up a mere stone’s throw from the famous old ground, in the shadow of that beckoning arch. A first tournament goal for one of Southgate’s controversial selections. Another decision vindicated.

The enigmatic Mason Mount crossed right into Harry Kane’s path only ten minutes after Sterling’s strike. But Kane’s involvement included contact not between the ball and the gaping net but between his midriff and the post. Gasps as he received treatment. Cheers as he jogged it off. Chelsea teammates but rivals on the night Mateo Kovačić and Mount missed chances to become heroes for their nations, but the finishing was off and a predictably tense final stretch loomed.

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Manchester City’s Sterling wasted a chance to grab his and his country’s second as he blasted over from Mings’ free-kick knockdown. Presentable chance wasted. No sweat — not in that sense, anyway. Onto the next. The England manager was conservative with his substitutions, not meddling in places that didn’t need it. Foden and Kane were saved for later ties. Marcus Rashford and Jude Bellingham replaced them. It made Bellingham of Borussia Dortmund the youngest ever player to grace a European Championships from any nation. He looked every bit a shrewd addition as England looked to hold on.

Hold on they eventually did. With full-backs tight to their opponents, their centre-backs aerially commanding, and finally an England midfield that looked comfortable in a tournament against an elite team, an afternoon of fascinating football was closed out with the utmost professionalism.

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To start the Euros with a win felt different. To beat a major nation at a tournament felt different. To hold on quite competently for a fully deserved clean-sheet felt different. Raheem Sterling and Kalvin Phillips will get the plaudits — and their displays were of note, certainly. But England to a man were professional and turned up when it mattered.

Phillips told this week that “I just try and show what I can do, what difference I can make in certain areas.” He certainly made a difference in the middle of the park, the sort of influence Luka Modrić would have liked to have had. England’s loyal fans were left sweating at Wembley, but not for the usual reasons.

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