Raheem Sterling’s first goal at a major tournament saw England get their Euro 2020 campaign off to a winning start, as they beat Croatia 1-0 at Wembley.
Having never won their opening game at a European Championship, England ended the wait to take a big step towards progression from Group D.
In stark contrast to their World Cup semi-final defeat to Croatia in 2018, Gareth Southgate’s side enjoyed a measure of control throughout, albeit Phil Foden’s early strike against the upright was the closest they came until the 57th minute when Sterling broke his tournament duck.
Harry Kane squandered a great chance to double England’s lead, but the Three Lions were not made to pay by an ineffective Croatia attack.
The pre-match build up was dominated by whether fans at Wembley would boo the taking of the knee, but the vast majority of spectators seemed well on side with England’s players ahead of kick-off.
They were almost celebrating a goal in the sixth minute – Foden’s curling effort hitting the post at the culmination of a swift attack led by Sterling.
Dominik Livakovic subsequently had to parry away Kalvin Phillips’ volley as Croatia failed to clear their lines amid constant pressure.
England failed to keep the momentum up, and the malaise continued into the second half until, just as the Wembley crowd seemed to grow anxious, the breakthrough arrived.
Phillips made an excellent run to inject pace into a move that looked to be going nowhere, with the Leeds United midfielder keeping his poise to find Sterling, whose first-time finish had too much power on it for Livakovic.
Kane seemed set to make it 2-0 from Mason Mount’s cross soon after, only for Josko Gvardiol to do enough to block off the England captain, who tumbled into the woodwork.
Ante Rebic and Marcelo Brozovic lashed wide as Croatia rallied, though chances going begging for Mount and Sterling at the other end failed to lift the visitors, who lost a Euro opener for the first time.
What does it mean? England have moved on, but Croatia seem stagnant
Croatia were the better team when these sides met in the last four in Russia, their quality on the ball telling in the end. Yet in the intervening time, an ageing Croatia side has seemingly stood still, while also losing some players who were crucial to their run in 2018.
While 35-year-old Luka Modric did his best to act as conductor, England largely controlled proceedings, and the difference between the teams was perhaps summed up when substitute Jude Bellingham, at the age of 17 years 349 days, became the youngest player to feature at a Euros.
Phillips passes with flying colours
Making his major tournament debut, Phillips was exceptional at the heart of England’s midfield. Not only did he work in tandem to keep Modric, Mateo Kovacic and Brozovic under lock and key, but he also showed his quality going forward.
He registered 33 attempted passes, completing 31 of them (93.9 per cent), while he completed 95 per cent of his 20 passes in Croatia’s half. The Leeds man may well have just solidified his starting berth for the rest of the tournament.
Blunt Croatia hardly muster a threat
Though the statistics will show both sides had the same amount of efforts (eight) and shots on target (two), Jordan Pickford did not truly have a difficult save to make, and Croatia’s best two openings fell to players who sliced well wide.
Key Opta Facts
– England remain unbeaten in 12 games at Wembley at major tournaments (World Cup & Euros combined), winning eight and drawing four of those matches.
– Croatia have lost eight of their 14 games in all competitions since the start of 2020 (W4 D2); before this, they had lost just eight of their previous 33 matches (W17 D8).
– England have won seven consecutive matches across all competitions for the first time since March 2015 under Roy Hodgson.
– Sterling has been directly involved in 19 goals in his last 17 appearances for England (13 goals, six assists). His opener was his first goal at a major international tournament (World Cup & Euros) in his 13th such appearance.
– England have won all 11 of their internationals in which Sterling has scored, the best 100 per cent winning rate when scoring of any player in the national side’s history, overtaking Martin Chivers (10/10).
– Phillips was the first England player to assist a goal on his first European Championship appearance since David Beckham assisted two goals against Portugal in 2000. As well as this, at 94% (31/33) his passing accuracy was the best of any England player to complete 90 minutes against Croatia.
England face Scotland on Friday, in the first meeting of the two nations in a major competition since Euro 1996, while Croatia take on the Czech Republic in their next match.
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