England kicked off their Euro 2020 campaign with a victory against Croatia, thanks to a goal from Raheem Sterling in the second half on Sunday.
Gareth Southgate’s side were struggling to break down
Croatia until Sterling struck in the second half at sun-baked Wembley.
The 26-year-old’s first goal at a major tournament — in his
13th game — was the perfect riposte to critics who questioned Southgate’s
decision to select him instead of Jack Grealish.
Sterling has endured a chequered relationship with England
fans after being hounded following his tame performances at Euro 2016.
He also struggled to hold down a place with Premier League
champions City this term, culminating in his lacklustre display in their
Champions League final defeat against Chelsea.
But, days after he was given an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday
Honours List for his anti-racism campaigning, Sterling enjoyed a
perfectly-timed moment of redemption.
In a rematch of the 2018 World Cup semi-final won by
Croatia, England were hampered by a lack of cutting edge until Sterling came to
Sterling’s winner eased the tension at Wembley and got fans
bellowing ‘Football’s coming home’ in the hope England can emulate their run to
the semi-finals when they hosted Euro 96, and maybe even win a major tournament
for the first time since the 1966 World Cup.
In truth, this was a far from convincing performance, but
Southgate will take heart from the way his team kept their nerve on a
England host neighbours Scotland in their second Group D
match on Friday before taking on the Czech Republic in their final game of the
first stage on June 22.
After England were booed for taking the knee in support of
the Black Lives Matter movement before their friendlies against Austria and
Romania in Middlesbrough, there were fears fans at Wembley would turn on the
team as well.
There were a smattering of boos from sections of the 22,500
crowd, but the majority cheered the gesture this time.
It was Southgate’s surprise decision to select Kalvin
Phillips that attracted most pre-match attention.
But it proved an inspired move as, along with Sterling, the
Leeds midfielder was England’s most accomplished performer.
England hold firm
Manchester City forward Phil Foden, his hair bleached blond,
has drawn comparisons with England legend Paul Gascoigne, who sported the same
eye-catching hair cut during Euro 96.
Foden was inches away from giving England the perfect start
in the sixth minute with the kind of magic that made Gascoigne so beloved.
Collecting Sterling’s pass on the edge of the area, Foden
worked space to curl his left-footed shot off the far post.
Phillips was quickly into his stride and forced Dominik
Livakovic to make a scrambling save with his strike from the edge of the area.
But Southgate’s men showed signs of running out of ideas
after their early flurry failed to yield a goal.
Southgate had picked Foden, Sterling and Mason Mount as the
creative forces behind Harry Kane.
With that quartet still struggling to unhinge Croatia into
the second half, fans began chanting for the introduction of Aston Villa
But Sterling quelled the mounting anxiety as England struck
in the 57th minute.
Phillips was the catalyst as he burst forward past two
Croatians and slipped a deft pass behind the defensive line.
Sterling arrived just ahead of his lunging marker and slotted
a low shot past Livakovic from 10 yards.
Kane was denied in painful fashion when he crashed into the
post after Duje Caleta-Car made a superb block to keep out his close-range
Mount fired a free-kick narrowly over but England went on
the defensive in the closing stages.
In the absence of the injured Harry Maguire, Tyrone Mings
and John Stones were up to the task as England’s centre-backs held firm to
clinch a victory in their opening European Championship game for the first