Raheem Sterling shines as Declan Rice makes England bow
Gareth Southgate’s side hit Czech Republic for five in opening Wembley qualifier
Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick as England beat the Czech Republic 5-0. Photograph: Clive Rose/Getty
England 5 Czech Republic 0
If the aim, ultimately, is for Gareth Southgate and his players to see whether their Euro 2020 adventure can finish in this stadium – 12 July, 2020, to be precise – this will certainly count as a decent way to begin that process. Five goals, a clean sheet and, perhaps most encouragingly of all, hard evidence that Raheem Sterling is transferring his Manchester City form on to the international stage.
Sterling’s hat-trick here means he has scored five times for England in his last three games. Before that, he had not managed one in the previous 27 appearances and, though it can seem like a trick of the imagination, there was even a debate during the World Cup about whether he should keep his place. His latest performance was just another reminder why Southgate believes it is between Sterling and Virgil van Dijk to win the individual award as the Premier League’s outstanding player this season.
Not that Sterling was the only player in England’s colours to excel.
England finished the night with Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, a substitute, menacing their opponents from the wings. Declan Rice also made his England debut in the second half. Harry Kane had a splendid night, including a penalty for the second goal, and when the Mexican wave started to snake round the stadium this was not one of those occasions when it felt like the crowd were trying to make their own entertainment. A spectacular own goal added to the fun and, on this evidence, England will want more of the same in Monday’s assignment in Montenegro.
For that one, perhaps Southgate will feel emboldened enough to put in Rice and Hudson-Odoi from the start. Rice should certainly feel better for the welcome he received from Wembley’s crowd when an early injury for Eric Dier presented the opportunity to warm up for the first time. Southgate had been asked beforehand how the England fans might react to Rice after the emergence of an old Instagram post, when the player was 16 in the Republic of Ireland youth set-up, in which he appeared to express support for the IRA. As it turned out, the crowd’s response let Rice know it would not be held against him.
Dier had been clobbered by a poor challenge from Tomas Soucek but, rather than bring on a like-for-like replacement in Rice, Southgate decided instead to introduce Ross Barkley and change the formation so Jordan Henderson was the only holding midfielder. What began as a 4-2-3-1 system morphed into a more attacking formation with Barkley and Dele Alli operating just behind the front three, from right to left, of Sancho, Kane and Sterling. Southgate seems reluctant to use the wing-back system that worked so well in the World Cup – a surprise, perhaps, when Kyle Walker and Ben Chilwell have the athleticism to make it flourish – but that detail will not matter too greatly as long as England are playing this adventurously, and scoring the kind of goal they created just after the midway point of the first half.
Every member of their attacking trio was involved and, in the process, Kane’s through ball was an exquisitely delivered reminder that there is nothing in football quite so beautiful as the perfect pass. Kane’s was aimed inside the full-back, Filip Novak, and weighted to such perfection that it opened up the entire defence. The killer pass is usually the one for the goal. In this case it came one before and, in comparison, Sancho’s delivery across the six-yard area was relatively straightforward. Sterling was sprinting to make himself available at the far post, as he does so often for Manchester City, and was able to get his outstretched boot on the ball.
The other notable statistic about England’s opening goal was that it was the culmination of a 25-pass move in which every single player bar one – Alli, surprisingly – was involved. England had started to play with the kind of confidence that has become expected of them in the Southgate era. At one stage Sancho could be seen slipping the ball through Novak’s legs. Just to prove the nutmeg was no fluke, Sancho immediately did the same again – this time with a little drag-back – to make the next opponent look silly, too. The crowd loved it and there was no surprise whatsoever when England’s supremacy led to their second goal.
This time Alli played a key role. Sterling’s driving runs into the penalty area were a prominent feature throughout the evening. Alli’s back-heel was trusting his colleague to get there first and, as Sterling tried to dart through a cluster of defenders, he was crunched between Pavel Kaderabek and Tomas Kalas. Jiri Pavlenka, diving to his right, did get a glove to Kane’s penalty but the ball had been struck powerfully enough to get past the Czech goalkeeper.
To be pernickety, there was a touch of good fortune about Sterling’s second-half goals, in particular the one for his hat-trick when he tried his luck with a curler from 25 yards and the ball struck the centre-half Ondrej Celustka on the back to change the direction of the shot and wrongfoot his goalkeeper.
There was also a lucky ricochet in the build-up to Sterling’s middle goal, too, before he swivelled away from Celustka to turn in a left-footed shot.
And, finally, a tragicomedy of an own goal from Kalas after Hudson-Odoi’s shot had been saved.