Sterling Again as Pragmatic England Finish Top

Getty Images/Neil Hall

Czech Republic 0-1 England

  • Raheem Sterling’s second of this tournament earned England a 1-0 win over the Czech Republic to ensure the Three Lions won Group D with seven points
  • They face the runners-up in Group F next — likely to be France, Germany or Portugal

Kieran Trippier told this weekend that “we’ve got more attacking threat now.” He was comparing England’s Euro 2020 squad to the squad he was part of at the World Cup three years ago. England fans have been crying out to see more from that sublime attacking talent after two cautious and conservative displays.

But the frankly ridiculous saga of Billy Gilmour’s positive Covid-19 test meant Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell who had chatted to him after the Scotland game had to isolate for ten days, starting the day before they were due to feature against the Czech Republic. That ruled them out of the final group match against the Czechs and possibly the round of 16 match too. But Gareth Southgate’s increased squad depth since Trippier and the 2018 side reached the semi-finals in Russia comes into its own now. Showman Jack Grealish and 19-year-old Bukayo Saka hoped to lay down a marker as they came into the team for their first tournament starts.

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They started very brightly indeed. Saka and Grealish formed some promising chemistry in the autumn when they were used heavily in friendlies and in the Nations League matches. Here they were centre stage, providing the pace and directness that was sorely lacking against Scotland on Friday.

Luke Shaw and Raheem Sterling looked in the mood in the opening exchanges too, and combined nicely as England struck the post just two minutes in. Shaw lifted the ball over the top and into the left channel for Manchester City’s Sterling to latch onto. Out came goalkeeper Tomáš Vaclík, and both he and Sterling watched on with interest as Sterling’s lob bounced in front of an open goal before striking the wrong side of the post. It was Phil Foden in the first game, John Stones in the second, and now Sterling in the third. England hitting the post early on — with more-than-presentable chances.

If England won the group then they knew they would remain at Wembley for their last 16 tie. Southgate described that as “the prize” for beating the Czechs, and England looked well up for the challenge. Sterling didn’t let his head drop after hitting the post. That paid off not ten minutes later. Saka — who was UEFA’s official man of the match — turned beautifully in his own half, before driving into the final third with purpose. A one-two with Kalvin Phillips allowed Saka the room to cross into the box, but it was too high. Grealish tried again from the other side, planting the ball onto the head of Sterling, who lurked at the back post to nod home his second of the tournament. But he was home; Wembley is his home.

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He wheeled away to celebrate breaking the deadlock after just 13 minutes of play. England had scored a really well-worked goal and merited their early lead.

Tyrone Mings was unfortunate not to retain his place, but Harry Maguire is England’s one consistently excellent centre-back, and it made sense to give him 90 minutes in a match with little jeopardy ahead of the knockout stage.

It was Maguire’s beautifully weighted through-ball that set Harry Kane free for a chance to silence his doubters. No goals in England’s first two matches had invited suggestions that he should be dropped. But while he didn’t look quite himself again, the Czechs dealt with him well just as the Scots had done, to be fair. He chopped back onto his right and forced Vaclík into a strong left-handed save.

England’s slippery opponents grew into the half as they sensed that Southgate’s team might sit on their one-goal advantage. They nearly got back level with two quickfire chances. Tomáš Holeš struck from range, with Jordan Pickford across well to parry the ball behind. Then Tomáš Souček of West Ham fired inches wide. Time paused momentarily as it whistled on by.

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Southgate’s unabashed pragmatism was tangible in the second half as England sought to hold onto what they already had. A third clean-sheet from three was within sight. Declan Rice was rested for 45 as Jordan Henderson played only his second half of football for anyone since mid-February. He almost capped it off with an unlikely first goal for his country when he tucked home from close in. But fellow midfield sub Jude Bellingham had played the ball to Henderson when the Liverpool captain was offside. VAR upheld the linesman’s decision. No goal.

So England didn’t double their lead on 85 minutes. But neither had they looked like doing so whatsoever throughout the second half. This was a conservation job. A couple of wild efforts from Czech substitutes Tomáš Pekhart and Alex Král threatened for a split second to spoil England’s script. But England’s defence so far in this tournament has been on song, and saw out the game will relative ease. Another game, and still England are yet to concede at Euro 2020.

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When Trippier spoke to about the Scotland draw, he seemed accepting of the result and looked to have already switched his attention to the Czechs. “It’s all about looking back at the game and looking at where we could have done better,” he said. “It’s just about getting back on the training field and getting prepared for the next one. That’s all you can do. Our next focus is on Tuesday. We’ll do everything we can to win the game.”

Did England do everything they could to win this game? Football romantics will argue they didn’t, because once goal number one was netted early on, they never added numbers two, three and four. Crucially, they never looked particularly desperate to.

An England fan drew a few chuckles after the match when he suggested that four more 1-0 wins and they’ll be European Champions. Some will see it that way; Southgate certainly will. Others want and expect a great deal more.

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