England beat Czech Republic to top group as Raheem Sterling strikes again

More than anything, it 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 – a quality that had been wholly absent last Friday in the 0-0 draw with Scotland? Thanks in large part to Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka, who both came into the starting lineup for the first time at these finals, they did so during an enjoyable first half when England asked questions of the Czech Republic with their movement and interplay.

Grealish made the only goal of the night, in the 12th minute for Raheem Sterling, and the Aston Villa player helped to drive his side; ever available for the ball, igniting the collective belief. Saka, meanwhile, brought pace and security on the right flank, his ability to rip into seams of space an eye-catching feature.

Then, in the second half, England shut up shop. It was a reversion to type, in some ways, but defensive resilience ought not to be a dirty phrase and it was encouraging to see how they restricted the Czechs. Harry Maguire made a strong return to central defence after his ankle injury, his passing out from the back another plus point, and England were able to record their third clean sheet in three matches. More broadly, it is eight in the past nine matches.

Apart from a spell around the half‑hour, when the Czechs pushed and had chances, England were comfortable and the result means they advance into the last 16 as Group D winners. One aspect of the prize is positive – they remain at Wembley, with the benefit of home support, even if the atmosphere in a below-capacity stadium is not as pulsating as it might be.

The other one is more open to question. They will face the runners-up from the so-called Group of Death – meaning France, Germany, Portugal, or even Hungary. It will be tough, perhaps tougher than a meeting with the second-placed team in Group F, even though that could be Spain – which would have awaited them had they drawn here and finished second.

But England cannot game the games. They must back themselves to play against the best because there is no avoiding that at a tournament. The most important thing was to win and move forward with confidence bolstered – particularly after their display against Scotland.

The fundamental lack of jeopardy had vied for prominence among the subplots, with both teams 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. Even in the Group of Death, there is the probability that none of France, Germany and Portugal will die.

Southgate and England could still feel the pressure. It is ever-present. Take away the first 20 minutes of the opening 1-0 win against Croatia and the briefest of bursts after half-time against Scotland and Southgate’s team had not exactly quickened the pulse.

They got on to the front foot, with Saka involved in the buildup to the goal but Grealish making the difference after collecting a pass from Harry Kane on the left. He swayed past his man, darting to the byline and chipping over the perfect cross. Sterling held his run around the onrushing Saka to nod home.

England might have been ahead before they were. They could see that the pass over the top was on; the spaces were there 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, the lob beat him only to hit the far post.

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

It was an uptempo performance from England in the first half, although the Czechs did flicker. Tomas Holes extended Jordan Pickford with a pot-shot from distance and Tomas Soucek almost scrambled home following a corner only to see Maguire block. West Ham’s Soucek also dragged another shot past the post – an extremely presentable chance wasted.

England could point to a couple of Kane attempts before the interval, the first of which on 26 minutes followed an incisive Maguire pass. Kane jinked inside Tomas Kalas and unloaded only for Vaclik to make a fine save. Kane still looked off the pace at times but, after his toils in the opening two matches, this was better.

Southgate could reflect on the boost of getting Jordan Henderson on for the second half and his first minutes of the tournament; the Liverpool midfielder was a part of the collective resilience and he even had the ball in the net late on, though he had strayed offside.

There was rather less from England as a cohesive attacking force in the second half and, when Southgate substituted Grealish in the 68th minute, there were boos from the crowd. It nevertheless ended well for the manager and his team. Further improvements must be made. Phase one, at least, is complete.