Football’s coming home, according to the fans inside Wembley. We have heard that before and so the usual disclaimers must apply. But this was an encouraging start for England, at the very least; the first time they have won the opening match at a European Championship – at the 10th time of asking.
It was a deserved victory, too, against surely the strongest opposition that Gareth Southgate’s team will face at the group stage. It was an occasion when revenge was in the air, with one or two of England’s players having brought up the semi-final defeat by Croatia at the 2018 World Cup. It is hard to see that anything will ever compensate for that and certainly not a group phase win.
Related: England v Croatia: Euro 2020 – live!
This was more about setting an upbeat tone and, thanks to Raheem Sterling’s first tournament goal, England did that. The moment that fired English dreams came as the game rather meandered, a bright start by the hosts having ebbed.
Kalvin Phillips, the game’s outstanding performer, took a smart ball forward from Kyle Walker and moved away from potential challengers before slipping the perfect pass through for Sterling. As it was throughout, the Manchester City forward’s movement was excellent and he finished smartly.
Southgate’s defence had an experimental feel, with John Stones playing alongside Tyrone Mings for the first time in the middle and Kieran Trippier preferred, surprisingly, at left-back. They would offer good protection in front of Jordan Pickford, who was not extended.
It had been impossible to ignore that 2018 semi-final; it hung over this occasion like a ghost for England. There had been another major tournament meeting between the teams in the dimmer and more distant past – England’s Euro 2004 group phase victory – and, in the Southgate era, a couple of Nations League ties; England winning one, the other being drawn.
Are Croatia still as polished? Not on this evidence. Seven of the players who had played for them in that World Cup semi started here and, for England, it was always going to be a question of managing the midfield that faced them, of pressing coherently and at the right moments. At no point did the visitors get in behind them.
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Southgate’s team brought the intensity at the outset, feeding off the energy of the home crowd, which Luka Modric, the Croatia captain, had described as an “unfair advantage”. Those in attendance certainly made themselves heard and it was pleasing that loud cheers from the majority all but drowned out the boos of some when the players took a knee in the fight against racism. That said, there was no escaping the fact there were still boos.
England’s emergence from the tunnel and the pre-match bellowing of the national anthem were genuinely uplifting moments and there was almost another just five minutes in when Sterling made a clever slicing run on to a throw-in from the left and fed Phil Foden, who was one-on-one with Josko Gvardiol. Foden darted inside and shaped a curler for the far corner. It flicked off Gvardiol’s outstretched toe and came back off the upright.
Phillips drove England’s encouraging opening period, which lasted for 20 minutes or so. There were assured touches from the Leeds man, strength in the challenge and an ability to with the ball high up. He also worked the goalkeeper, Dominik Livakovic, in the eighth minute when he caught a volley cleanly on the edge of the area after a corner had been half-cleared.
England dropped off in the second part of the first half, perhaps feeling the searing temperatures; Southgate’s lineup featured five players who started the Champions League final two weeks ago and hadn’t kicked a ball since. Flitting in off the left, Sterling was able to stretch the Croatia defence and the ball over the top was sometimes on for him. He won a free-kick just before the interval when he panicked Duje Caleta-Car into handling but Trippier could not repeat his execution from the World Cup semi-final, hitting the wall rather than the top corner.
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Southgate’s inclusion of Trippier on the left of his back four in preference to Ben Chilwell, who did not make the 12-man bench, and Luke Shaw had not been forecast. According to Opta, the Atlético Madrid player had only started four games previously in the position, albeit three of them for England this season. It was a move with defensive solidity in mind. Trippier did not get forward on the overlap, rather Mason Mount pulled left when Sterling wandered infield.
With the tempo slow, Croatia were happy. But England found the incision through Sterling and they could have gone further in front shortly afterwards when Mount crossed for Harry Kane at the far post; only a last-gasp intervention by Gvardiol denied him. It was not the captain’s day.
England had largely held Croatia at arm’s length in the first-half; save for one half-chance for Ivan Perisic after Mings missed a clearance, which the winger lifted high. Could they continue to do so after the goal? The answer was yes, and with a measure of comfort.
Apart from an Ante Rebic chance on 66 minutes, which he dragged badly, there was not really the sense that the equaliser was coming. Sterling ought to have scored again in the 74th minute only to blaze high following a Mings header back. One was enough.