It was an afternoon of firsts at Wembley. The first time England had ever won their opening match at the European Championships; the first goal scored at a major tournament by Raheem Sterling; and the first England goal made by a Leeds player this century.
Each first had real significance, too. This is a group that could unfolded rather uncomfortably had England dropped points yesterday, not least with a grudge match against Scotland up next. For Sterling, his place has been under pressure from people’s choice Jack Grealish, among others, of late, so to take the match-winning goal with such bravery and confidence was a huge vindication of his selection.
As for Kalvin Phillips, the goal creator, his delicious pass in the 57th minute capped what manynsidered to be a man of the match performance. He was excellent in midfield, with Declan Rice protecting the back four, a performance so assured the phrase ‘YorkshirePirlo’ was trending on social media. Earlier, as news leaked of Southgate’s starting XI, Phillips’ inclusion had been one of several talking points. There are certainly more widely appealing talents out there – but not after 90 minutes of this match.
Raheem Sterling scored the winning goal as England beat Croatia 1-0 at a sunny Wembley to begin their Euro 2020 bid well
The Three Lions took the lead just ten minutes after half-time when Sterling slammed home Kalvin Phillips’ cool run and pass
Sterling congratulated Phillips (left) after scoring the goal – the Leeds man beat a couple of defenders before playing him in
As for Southgate, he’s off to a flier – again. Just as England hit the ground running in Russia two years ago, so this was a result to lift the nations spirits, and a performance to get doubters behind the manager. He called it right, with his choices at full-back and centre-half, by keeping faith with Sterling, by not gambling with an XI that may have delighted some observers with its flamboyance but would not have afforded Croatia the respect their record deserves.
This side served its purpose. Controlled the game – or most of it – against a good technical side with enough invention to decide it. By allowing Phillips the freedom to attack and keeping Rice solely as a holding player, he also sprung a small surprise that Croatia struggled to deal with. Phillips caused them trouble all game, and his set-up for the goal was quite delightful. His run took him past two guarding players before he slipped a sublime ball to Sterling, make a trademark run in behind the defence. Sime Vrsaljko saw the danger but Sterling beat him to the ball sending it past the advancing Domink Livakovic in goal. It was 1999 when a Leeds man last claimed an assist for England: David Batty.
It could have been over had Sterling not shot wildly in the 74th minute, when the ball was headed back to him by Marcus Rashford, but there isn’t a soul in the England camp who would not have bought this result on a handshake prior to kick-off.
England could have added more to their tally as captain Harry Kane spurned a good chance to double the hosts’ lead
England’s assist maker and clean sheet vindicated Phillips’ (middle) and Kieran Trippier (right) selection on Sunday
Come half-time, what would no doubt have pleased Gareth Southgate most was the vindication of his most debated choices. Kalvin Phillips, for instance, had been excellent in midfield, while Kieran Trippier had been England’s best full-back, despite playing on the left. Tyrone Mings at centre-half was outstanding and Raheem Sterling, too, had begun brightly, justifying his inclusion ahead of popular choice Jack Grealish.
Indeed, in the opening ten minutes, England twice rocked Croatia, coming close to the perfect start. High tempo, ambitious, Croatia found them hard to handle at first and the game was only six minutes old when Sterling burst through, feeding Manchester City team-mate Phil Foden.
Having dyed his hair peroxide blond in a nod to Paul Gascoigne and Euro 96, Foden certainly isn’t shying away from expectations. And it did nothing to dampen them that his first touch of note was a lovely, low curling shot, that defeated goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic and struck the inside of his far post. The ball rebounded out, almost striking Livakovic as it did so. It could have been a very unfortunate ricochet.
Tyrone Mings (left) was another player Southgate put his faith in to excel at the back during the Wembley victory
Phil Foden had the best chance of the first-half, striking the inside of the post by cutting inside and curling with his left foot
Within three minutes England had forced a corner, which was cleared, but met on the volley by Phillips and returning through a crowd of bodies. The merest touch could have caused a dangerous diversion, but somehow the ball passed through untroubled and Livakovic saved well, having seen it late.
Yet after a start of such promise a familiar malaise set out. England slowed in the strength-sapping heat and the game slipped into Croatia’s control. Not that they were creating chances, or had much of a cutting edge, and the anxiety in some of Jordan Pickford’s clearances seemed unnecessary. Yet Luka Modric was dropping deep – in many ways Southgate’s selections were a nod to his vast talent – and began to dictate the pace of the game. Livakovic had said Croatia’s midfield was better than anything England could offer, and certainly one component of it is. The more Modric got on the ball the more anxious England appeared and the half concluded with a row between Tyrone Mings and Pickford, the defender unimpressed at the way his team-mate was trying to kick, rather than play, his way out of trouble – affording the Croats too much possession.
Better for England was a run by Sterling that drew a panicked foul from centre-half Duje Caleta-Car, and a booking from Italian referee Daniele Orsato. Matteo Kovacic followed him soon after half-time for a hack on his Chelsea team-mate Mason Mount. More of a problem was how seldom England were getting Harry Kane on the ball.
Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions have taken a positive step in the group ahead of their highly-anticipated clash with Scotland
More to follow.
England (4-2-3-1): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings, Trippier; Phillips, Rice; Foden (sub Rashford 71), Mount, Sterling (sub Calvert Lewin 90+2), Kane (sub Bellingham 82)
Subs not used: D Henderson (GK), Shaw, Grealish, J Henderson, Coady, White, Johnstone, James , Saka
Goal: Sterling 57
Croatia (4-3-3): Livakovic; Vrsaljko, Vida, Caleta-Car, Gvardiol; Modric, Brozovic (sub Vlasic 70), Kovacic (sub Pasalic 8; Kramaric (sub Brekalo 70), Rebic (sub Petkovic 78), Perisic
Subs not used: Kalinic, Budimir, Skoric, Badelj, Juranovic, Sluga, Bradaric, Ivanusec
Bookings: Brozovic, Kovacic, Caleta-Car