Raheem Sterling finally found his tournament touch when his 61st-minute goal gave England a deserved 1-0 win over Croatia at Wembley on Sunday as they began a European Championship with a victory for the first time in nine attempts.
Sterling, something of a surprise starter after a flat end to the domestic season but a favourite of manager Gareth Southgate, slid home after great work by Kalvin Phillips to end an individual drought that had run through England’s three previous major tournaments.
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“It feels good… I’ve always said that if I play at Wembley in a major tournament I had to score. I grew up two minutes down the road, so I knew I had to score here, and it was a great feeling to do it,” said the Manchester City forward.
“There are a lot of different reasons I’ve not been scoring with my club, but that’s irrelevant now. It’s great to get off to a win, that was the most important thing. It’s been a long season for me, I couldn’t wait to get here, to get started, I knew it was going to be a positive one.”
On a boiling hot day England started strongly, lost their way for a while but regained control as Croatia barely managed a shot, giving the home side the early advantage in Group D that also includes Scotland and the Czech Republic.
Both those sides will have renewed hope of progress after seeing the disjoined and toothless display of Croatia, for whom, conversely, this was a first opening Euro defeat in their six tournaments.
The game lacked the drama and jeopardy of the teams’ 2018 World Cup semi-final, won by Croatia, and losing on Sunday was no disaster for them given the way the draw pans out, but it was a morale-boosting victory for England as they set off once again in search of their first title since 1966.
Roared on by a noisy 22,500 crowd –- a quarter of Wembley’s capacity — England started full of bright intentions and put huge pressure on the visitors, pinning them deep in their own half. Phil Foden, his bleached hair channelling Paul Gascoigne from Euro 96, almost gave them a dream start when he cut in from the right and curled a low shot beyond Dominik Livakovic but agonisingly saw it come back off the post after the slightest of deflections from the toe of Josko Gvardiol. Phillips, impressive all afternoon, had a 25-yard shot blocked but, instead of riding the early momentum, England lost their way. Croatia’s classy midfield trio of Mateo Kovacic, Luka Modric and Marcelo Brozovic began to stroke the ball around and, with the sun beating down, the pace and energy seeped out of the game.
England eventually shook themselves out of the torpor and struck when Phillips drove through the retreating defence, rode two tackles and played the ball expertly into the path of the darting Sterling who, under pressure, just got enough on the ball to steer it home.
Sterling had looked lively all day and celebrated his first major tournament goal with gusto, though he should have added a second 13 minutes later but blazed wildly over the bar.
Another bright spot for England was the introduction of substitute Jude Bellingham who, at 17 years and 349 days, became the youngest player to appear in the European Championship finals.
Croatia also threw on their attacking subs as they tried to show a bit more ambition but though England’s defence looked a little shaky at times there were few chances for an equalizer.
Scotland and the Czech Republic get their Group D campaign underway on Monday before England welcome the Scots to Wembley on Friday, with Croatia playing the Czechs in Glasgow on the same day.