England put on an efficient but barely dazzling performance on Tuesday to beat the Czech Republic 1-0 with an early header from Raheem Sterling to advance to the Euro 2020 round of 16 as Group D winners, with the Czechs being one of the best Third place finish.
Sterling scored his and England’s second goal of the tournament in the 12th minute, but the initial injection of pace, intensity and audience enthusiasm brought in by Jack Grealish and the game’s teenager Bukayo Saka slowly faded as the game became a completely forgotten one second half.
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However, none of the coaches will mind as they are now starting to plan their attacks on the knockout stage.
England return to Wembley on Tuesday to face the Group E runner-up – likely France, Germany or Portugal – while the Czechs have to wait to find out which group winners they play against.
They were ousted from second place by Croatia, who beat Scotland 3-1 and will face the Group E runners-up Sweden, Slovakia, Spain or Poland in Copenhagen on Monday.
On the positive side of England’s record, there are two wins and one draw, three goals conceded, a return to Wembley and a good number of players getting a taste of what is going on.
Conversely, they have only scored two goals – the lowest of any team to have ever reached the top of the European Championship – have been sluggish and overly cautious in all three games for a long time, and the combination and approach in midfield seem far from fixed. Next up, they face a potentially daunting knockout knockout round match.
Unsurprisingly, Sterling was focusing on the positives: “If you don’t concede goals, you win football games, you just have to score on the other end,” he said.
“People were disappointed with the Scotland game a few days ago but we didn’t give up. The most important thing was to win the group. It’s tournament football and it’s going to be difficult, but we have to do what we do.”
“I think the game also has positive aspects. We held the ball better today. That gave us more attack opportunities. We got into the gaps very well, played good football and scored the goal we needed.”
Raheem Sterling scored England’s only goal on Tuesday. Laurence Griffiths / EPA
Sterling was at the sharp end of England’s early attacks. He struck a post in the second minute as he passed the ball past advancing goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik – the third time England had hit a post from the same goal at the start of each game.
Ten minutes later, he hit a close-range header from a delicious cross from Grealish after a driving run from Saka shattered the Czech rearguard.
On his first appearance in the tournament, the 19-year-old full-back showed a willingness to concentrate that was sorely lacking in England’s first two appearances, and with Grealish also being a constant threat, the hosts looked much more threatening.
Harry Kane looked sharper too, having parried a Vaclik shot well late in the first half, but that early promise was gradually being replaced by the all-too-familiar caution and England barely made another worthwhile attempt.
The Czechs were neat and tidy without facing a major penalty area threat, despite Tomas Holes clearing a shot from Jordan Pickford and Tomas Soucek just missing a shot in the first half.
Substitute Jordan Henderson believed he scored his first goal for England after a scramble in his 60th game with five minutes left but was ruled offside.
Overall, however, it was a razor-thin for most of the second half, with the loudest cheers reserved for the announcements of Croatian goals that eliminated Scotland on the big screen.