Big guns await England as Sterling strike sees off Czech Republic

Gareth Southgate’s side likely to play either Germany, France or Portugal in the last-16

Raheem Sterling celebrates with Jack Grealish after opening the scoring against the Czech Republic. Photopgraph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty

Raheem Sterling celebrates with Jack Grealish after opening the scoring against the Czech Republic. Photopgraph: Laurence Griffiths/Getty

 

Czech Republic 0 England 1

More than anything, this was a night when Gareth Southgate needed his attacking talents to express themselves. Safe passage to the last 16 at Euro 2020 had been guaranteed but could England show something to generate a bit of excitement, to fire the feeling that they might be able to cut through teams?

Thanks in large part to Jack Grealish, who was given his chance in the starting lineup, they did so in the first half and that was the main takeaway of an evening when the victory ensured England finished on top of Group D. Grealish made the only goal of the tie early on for Raheem Sterling and, together with Bukayo Saka, who also started, was central to an enjoyably thrusting display for 45 minutes.

After which England shut up shop. With Harry Maguire back in the backline after injury, they were able to record their third clean sheet in a row and, apart from a spell in the first half when the Czech Republic pushed, there was once again an assurance about their defensive work.

And so England ensured that they will stay at Wembley for the last 16 when they will face France, Germany, Portugal or even Hungary. It is a challenging prospect but they must face the best at some point so better to do so at home. Southgate had described staying at Wembley as a prize. England have it.

The fundamental lack of jeopardy had vied for prominence among the many subplots, with both nations having already qualified come what may. What a nonsense it is that the group stage of this tournament sees 36 matches played and only eight teams eliminated. For the top countries, it really takes some doing not to advance. In the Group of Death this time, there is the probability that none of France, Germany and Portugal will die.

There is always pressure on England, on the manager and the players, and everybody knew what was required here. Take away the opening 20 minutes against Croatia and the briefest of bursts after half-time against Scotland and Southgate’s team had not exactly quickened the pulse.

Grealish’s selection had been designed to put that right. Amid the chaos of Ben Chilwell and Mason Mount having to be stood down after coming into contact with the Covid-positive Billy Gilmour of Scotland, there was the surprise of Saka being brought in, especially as Jadon Sancho remained among the substitutes. Phil Foden, who is carrying a yellow card, dropped out.

Grealish had the license to roam from the left and to interchange with Sterling, who started in a central role. There was a pace and fluidity about England at the outset, with Saka also making dangerous runs up the right. He had barely played on that side for England previously but Southgate trusts in his ability and versatility. It was easy to see why.

Bukayo Saka shone during England’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA
Bukayo Saka shone during England’s 1-0 win over the Czech Republic. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA

The breakthrough goal originated with good work by Saka but, when the ball was worked left by Harry Kane for Grealish and he put his defender on to his heels, asking him to guess which way he would dart, the scene was set.

Grealish swayed left, towards the byline, and got there first with time to spare. The cross, chipped towards the far post, was a beauty and Sterling rose to head home. The Aston Villa man brought the dynamism but, as much as anything, he helped to fire the collective belief, ever available for the ball, always demanding it. He was smooth and secure with it.

England might have been ahead before they were. They could see that the pass over the top was on; the spaces were there in behind the Czech defence in the early running. Luke Shaw picked out the run of Sterling in the second minute and, with the goalkeeper, Tomas Vaclik, drawn out, Sterling’s lob beat him only to hit the far post.

It was an upbeat performance from England in the first half, although the Czechs did flicker around the half hour. Tomas Holes extended Jordan Pickford with a pot-shot from distance while Tomas Soucek almost scrambled home following a corner only to see the returning Harry Maguire block. Soucek also dragged another shot past the post; an extremely presentable chance wasted.

England could point to a couple of Kane attempts before the break, the first on 26 minutes following an incisive Maguire pass. Kane jinked inside Tomas Kalas and unloaded only for Vaclik to make a fine save.

The Czech Republic had used much of the same starting XI to beat England 2-1 in October 2019 during qualification and, for Southgate’s players, it became an exercise in concentration. Jordan Henderson replaced Declan Rice for the second half and his first minutes of the tournament with that in mind – to try to maintain order in the middle of the pitch.

Shaw’s desire to get forward from left-back – mainly in the first half – was pleasing to see but the movement of England’s front four was not as slick after the restart. Sterling stayed left, with Grealish more central and there were not as many interchanges between the pair. The Czechs were much more in the game and it felt as though England were happy to trust in their defensive resilience. And why not? It has been a standout feature of their tournament so far.

Southgate’s decision to substitute Grealish in the 68th minute was booed by large sections of the crowd, with his replacement, Jude Bellingham, asked to further shore things up on the left of a midfield three. Marcus Rashford came on for Sterling and, at that point, it was easy to imagine the reaction if England had conceded. It would be down to Southgate’s caution.

Happily, it did not work out that way. Henderson had the ball in the net late on only for an offside flag to go up but England had done enough. -Guardian

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