Sterling header clinches top spot for England

The Manchester City winger’s second goal of the tournament got England a 1-0 win over a poor Czech Republic in Group D

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In a largely dull match between two sides who had already secured qualification to the last-16, Raheem Sterling’s first-half header was enough to secure all 3 points for the Three Lions at Wembley. While the first half featured some bright attacking spells for England, the second half devolved into something resembling a training exercise.

After hitting the post in the 2nd minute, Sterling turned in Jack Grealish’s left-wing cross at the far post 10 minutes later. Harry Kane had a couple of chances, while the Czechs had to make do with some long-range shots which Jordan Pickford did well to keep out.

In the second half, England went into defensive mode to keep their opponents at arm’s length although Czech Republic, who failed to provide any service to star striker Patrik Schick, rarely threatened anyway. Harry Maguire impressed on his first start while Jordan Henderson came on at the break to get some match fitness.

Before the match, news filtered out that Mason Mount, who had started both the previous games for England, and Ben Chilwell would have to self-isolate after coming into close contact with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour, who tested positive for Covid-19. Gareth Southgate replaced Mount with Grealish, and also started Maguire, Bukayo Saka and Luke Shaw. Czech Republic’s Jaroslav Silhavy sent out the same team that drew 1-1 with Croatia.

The atmosphere inside Wembley Stadium was rather muted, partly due to the reduced numbers resulting from Covid regulations, and partly due to the fact that results in other groups meant that both teams were already through and had nothing much to play for.

Luckily, the crowd were given something to cheer early on, when Shaw curled a long ball down the left channel. Sterling tore free of his marker to run onto the ball and scooped the ball over the onrushing Tomas Vaclik in goal, but he was dismayed as the ball struck the post. But the early chance did crank up the volume in the stadium.

Behind Kane, the trio of Sterling, Grealish and the exciting Saka produced attacking bursts of pace and flair while interchanging positions fluidly. In the 12th minute, Saka dribbled with menace down the right and sent in a cross that was not properly cleared. Captain Kane produced some neat holdup play before laying off to Grealish on the left. The Aston Villa man then danced past a defender and curled in a delicious floater of a cross. The ball was just too high for the leaping Saka but Sterling, lurking behind the teenager, barely had to jump as he headed in at the far post. He has scored both England goals at the tournament so far.

The goal woke up the Czech players and they had their best spell of the match, stitching together a few attacks. But these barely made England sweat, with Pickford only having to deal with a couple of crosses.

The English again produced the next big chance of the game. In the 26th minute, Maguire stepped out of defence with the ball and found Kane with a gorgeous through ball. The England captain cut inside and curled towards the bottom right, but Vaclik responded with a strong hand to deny him.

Immediately after that, the Czechs finally forced Pickford into a save. The defensive midfielder Tomas Holes belted a shot towards the top left corner that was just kept out by a flying Pickford. From the resulting corner, Tomas Soucek almost scrambled home, only for Maguire to block well.

Soucek then wasted an even better chance for an equaliser in the 35th minute. As the ball was crossed from the left, Jakub Jankto shaped to scissor kick it but Shaw bravely put his head between the ball and Jankto’s raised boot. The ball broke for Soucek in the area, but the West Ham midfielder fired his first-time shot just wide. Kane then had a chance at the other end, but Vaclik blocked, and the half-time whistle blew soon after.

At the break, Southgate replaced the quiet Declan Rice for senior man Jordan Henderson, looking to get some minutes into his legs following his return from injury. But the pace of the match quickly slowed down to almost walking speed in the second half, with England looking to hold on to their lead and the Czechs not showing determination in attack.

In an extremely forgettable second half, the only excitement came in the 86th minute. Henderson thought he had scored from six yards after the fellow substitute Jude Bellingham stabbed the ball to him. Unfortunately, what would have been the Liverpool captain’s first international goal was chalked off for offside.

England closed out the match in comfortable style and recorded their third clean sheet of the tournament. The win also helped them grab the top spot from the Czech Republic, who ended up finishing third in the group, after Croatia’s 3-1 defeat of Scotland took them to second on goals scored. The Czechs will still qualify as one of the four best third-placed teams, but will have to wait to find out the identity of their opponents.

England, on the other hand, know that they will face the runners-up from Group F, meaning a last-16 tie against one of France, Germany, Portugal or Hungary. But the difficulty of this fixture is slightly offset by the fact that it will still be held in Wembley. With a week to prepare, the home crowd behind them, an unbeaten defence, and an attack starting to find its groove, anything is possible for Southgate’s men.

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