Match report as Raheem Sterling repays Gareth Southgate's faith in him with the match-winner against Croatia to earn England some measure of revenge over their 2018 World Cup semi-final conquerors and send the Three Lions top of Group D.
Sunday 13 June 2021 21:01, UK
Raheem Sterling's second-half strike got England off to a winning start at Euro 2020, as they beat Croatia 1-0 in sweltering conditions at Wembley.
There had been debate about the forward's starting role under boss Gareth Southgate but, despite some patchy goal-scoring form for Manchester City this past season, he has been a key figure for England and the local lad sent them top of Group D with his 13th international goal in his last 17 games.
In front of 22,500 fans, Sterling slotted in after excellent build-up play from Kalvin Phillips on an afternoon when Southgate's selections paid off and England earned some measure of revenge on the side who knocked them out of the World Cup semi-finals three years ago.
Phil Foden struck the post early on as England began well before both sides appeared to slow in the heat but Southgate's side grabbed the lead just as their visitors were gathering some momentum and saw it through without any major alarms to the delight of their returning home fans.
England's first win in an opening match at a European Championships puts them in a commanding position ahead of their second group game against Scotland on Friday.
England: Pickford (6), Walker (5), Stones (6), Mings (7), Trippier (6), Rice (7), Phillips (8), Mount (7), Foden (7), Sterling (8), Kane (6).
Subs used: Rashford (6), Bellingham (N/A), Calvert-Lewin (N/A)
Croatia: Livakovic (6), Vrsaljko (6), Vida (5), Caleta-Car (6), Gvardiol (5), Modric (6), Brozovic (5), Kovacic (6), Rebic (5), Kramaric (5), Perisic (5).
Subs used: Vlasic (5), Brekalo (6), Petkovic (N/A), Pasalic (N/A)
Man of the match: Raheem Sterling (England)
Initial boos were drowned out by cheers and applause when England's players took a knee before kick-off and the home fans were on their feet again soon after, as Southgate's side put together a flurry of early chances.
Kieran Trippier's inclusion at left-back had dominated the pre-match line-up discussion but it was a long throw from the defender which opened Croatia up on six minutes, allowing Sterling to run at their backline before feeding the dyed-blond Foden to bend a left-foot shot agonisingly against the inside of the far post.
Phillips then forced Dominik Livakovic into a sharp stop by firing through a crowd of bodies before Sterling latched onto Mason Mount's fine pass but couldn't pick out a white shirt in the box.
Kieran Trippier started England’s Euro 2020 opener at left-back as part of a back four, with Ben Chilwell not in the squad. Phil Foden and Raheem Sterling began in attack in support of captain Harry Kane, with Jack Grealish on the bench and Jadon Sancho not in the matchday 23.
Meanwhile, Duje Caleta-Car and Domagoj Vida started at centre-back for Croatia, with injured Dejan Lovren not in the squad, and Chelsea’s Mateo Kovacic started in midfield alongside Luka Modric.
Croatia began to feel their way back into the contest with some sustained possession but, despite some neat build-up, they were unable to carve any meaningful openings, as the heat appeared to take its toll on both teams, lulling the game to walking pace at times.
Just before half-time, a Duje Caleta-Car booking for handball gave Trippier the chance to repeat his heroics of the World Cup semi-final three years ago but he pinged his free-kick into the Croatia wall and the players headed down the tunnel to cool off.
They were back into the heat of the action at the start of the second half, though, with Mateo Kovacic booked for a crunching tackle on Chelsea team-mate Mason Mount before Trippier breathed a sigh of relief when Jordan Pickford beat Ante Rebic to his under-hit back pass. But then came the moment of class we'd been waiting for.
It was Leeds midfielder Phillips who provided it, skipping past a couple of challenges before reversing a pass into the path of Sterling who slid in ahead of Sime Vrsaljko to score his first goal at a major tournament.
England nearly came up with a second moments later when Mount crossed to the back post but Kane was unable to turn the ball home and collided painfully with the upright, before Rebic lashed wide at the other end as the game opened up.
Mount fizzed a free-kick just over the bar after a driving run of his own, before Marcelo Brozovic and Sterling blasted off target at either end.
With space to play, Southgate sent on Marcus Rashford for Foden and then, in a special moment, Jude Bellingham replaced Harry Kane, which meant, at the age of 17, he became the youngest player to feature in a European Championship match.
The teenager certainly didn't look out of place as England defended confidently through the final stages and completed an impressive opening-game victory. On the touchline, Southgate, with his shirt sleeves rolled up, celebrated the final whistle with a clenched fist and embrace with his coaching staff.
It's a sight England fans hope will become as familiar and iconic over the coming weeks as his waistcoat and raised arms of Russia 2018...
England boss Gareth Southgate told the BBC: "[We] played really well, [we] settled early in the game. There were moments when the tempo dropped just because of the heat, but for the majority of the game, we were in control, we didn't give them many opportunities and we looked dangerous.
"I thought they [the back four] coped very well. With Croatia, I think you have to put pressure on their midfield players especially and we managed to do that. That limits some of the supply, but the defenders dealt with the longer balls well, they read the game well, they were composed in their build-up.
"This is a tough group. There are different sorts of challenges and Scotland and the Czechs are good sides. We're pleased with today, you want to get a good start because it takes some of the tension out of the preparations for the next game, but we need to get points to qualify, which is our first objective."
Gareth Southgate knows his England side best... who would have thought it?! Kate Burlaga is joined by Pete Smith, Jess Creighton and Gerard Brand to discuss England's victory over Croatia in their Euro 2020 opener at Wembley, as Raheem Sterling answers his critics with the only goal.
The panel discuss Southgate's surprise selections and controlling performance, and look ahead to England's next Group D game against Scotland on Friday. We also preview the Scots' first major tournament game in 23 years as they face Czech Republic on Monday.
Geraint Hughes also joins us to review Wales' hard-fought 1-1 draw in Switzerland in Group A on Saturday.
Sky Sports' Peter Smith at Wembley:
"The sun shone. The fans were back. And Raheem Sterling scored in his back yard. For the very first time England have won their opening game at a European Championships but this was more than just three points for Gareth Southgate's side.
"It was also a huge confidence boost to overcome the side which knocked them out of the World Cup semi-finals three years ago, a validation of the manager's unmovable faith in how he wants his side to approach this competition, and, given the qualifying criteria, a big step towards the knockout phase.
"Luka Modric talked about the 'arrogance' surrounding this England team and one wonders what the midfielder made of the home side effectively going on a lap of honour as Three Lions - "It's coming home!" - blared out at Wembley.
"But this was a special day for the players and the returning fans, brought into sharp perspective by the upsetting scenes in Denmark the day before. Christian Eriksen's scare is a reminder to treasure the special moments and England's players made sure they celebrated after Sterling's goal and at the full-time whistle with their families in front of the press box.
"They, like the majority of the 22,500 returning fans were intent on enjoying the moment. But there will be a quiet confidence from Southgate - whose selection decisions were rewarded - that this could just be the start."
Both teams are next in action on June 18. England face a huge Home Nations derby against Scotland at Wembley (kick-off 8pm) while Croatia face the Czech Republic at Hampden Park (kick-off 5pm).