England 1 Czech Republic 0: Raheem Sterling scores to top group – but Three Lions face horror Euro 2020 last-16 clash

IT might turn out to be a crown of thorns, as England await their last-16 opponents from the ‘Group of Death’.

But Gareth Southgate’s men certainly needed this. 

They won a match, won a group, won back a few hearts and minds, and now return to Wembley – same time, same place, next week – to face France, Germany, Portugal or, if they are extremely fortunate, Hungary.

Their first – and perhaps last – knock-out match is likely to be a far tougher test than anything England have faced so far.

But the spark of Jack Grealish, the acceleration of Bukayo Saka, another winner from Raheem Sterling and a significant improvement from Harry Kane were all welcome.

That stink-bomb performance against Scotland on Friday can now be forgotten, along with the Scots themselves, banished at the group stage, as always.

England have kept three clean sheets in the initial group stage of a major tournament for the first time since 1966 – and Sir Alf Ramsey’s men started that World Cup off slowly and unspectacularly too.

It was a seventh shut-out in eight games for Southgate’s side. And with Harry Maguire making a welcome return from injury here, even those elite potential opponents will not find it easy to break them down.

In truth, there have been few signs so far that England can beat world champions France, European champions Portugal or their perennial tournament bogeymen, the Germans.

After a lively first half, they were flat after the break and Southgate reverted to his defensive type to see the game out.


But there is a lot to be said for being difficult to beat – and at least England no longer possesses a collective national dread of penalty shoot-outs after that World Cup victory over Colombia.

Maguire was brought in for his first appearance in six weeks after an ankle injury, Grealish was in by popular demand, Arsenal’s Saka was a wild-card pick – and all three impressed.

After a miserable Friday night against the Scots, England had at least been guaranteed a last-16 place, with Monday’s results saving them from any arithmetic in the event of finishing third.

Southgate was fuming at the nonsense of Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell being forced to isolate for chatting to Billy Gilmour, while none of the Chelsea player’s Scotland team-mates had suffered the same fate.

Such is the extraordinarily illogical nature of late-pandemic life, as anyone who has tried to travel can testify.

Just two minutes in, Kane dropped deep and Shaw’s raking pass released Sterling, who lobbed the keeper and struck the far post.

It meant a Manchester City player had hit the woodwork for England early on in each of their three group games – Phil Foden having done so against Croatia and John Stones against the Scots.

This time, though, it didn’t take long for Southgate’s men to score.

On 12 minutes, Bukayo Saka burst forward from midfield, Kalvin Phillips over-hit a cross but Grealish slipped in on the left and caressed a centre to the far post where Sterling rose to nod his, and England’s second goal of the tournament.

Grealish had been taunted by the Scots for his lovely calves but his feet aren’t bad either.

Sterling slid to the touchline, roaring, and Wembley started bouncing.

The atmosphere against Scotland had soon turned tetchy and edgy but this lot were soon in party mode – especially when news came through that the Scots were losing to Croatia.

Then Maguire strode out of defence and slipped a pass through to Kane, who turned his man and produced his first shot on target at the Euros, which was smartly saved by Tomas Vaclik.

Kane slapped the turf in frustration but this was better, much better, from the England captain.

The Czechs were playing some decent stuff of their own, though, and Jordan Pickford was forced into a full-stretch save to keep out Tomas Holes before Tomas Soucek fired wildly wide after a poor defensive header from Shaw.

Jordan Henderson replaced Declan Rice at half-time, giving the Liverpool skipper a first competitive outing since February and a shot at the knock-out stages.

The second half meandered, like the dead rubber this really was, and Southgate hauled off Sterling and Grealish – to some booing – in favour of Jude Bellingham and Marcus Rashford.

Jadon Sancho finally got a run-out late on, in place of Saka, the Borussia Dortmund clearly at the bottom of Southgate’s pecking order for the wide roles, despite some excellent recent form in the Bundesliga.

Henderson had the ball in the net four minutes of time – but would have been his first England goal was ruled out by a linesman’s flag.

England are not thrilling the pants off all Europe but neither did the Greeks in 2004 or the Portuguese in 2016.

You never know, ‘one-nil to the Ing-er-land’ might become the feelgood hit of the summer.

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