If the soundtrack consisted of predictable choruses of “football’s coming home,” Raheem Sterling savoured a return to his neck of the woods. Brought up in the shadow of the national stadium, he scored at Wembley. His first goal in a major international tournament brought England a novel sensation as they finally won their opening game in a European Championships.
Sterling’s afternoon ended with a standing ovation. Croatia departed defeated, England getting a modicum of revenge for their 2018 World Cup semi-final loss.
This was scarcely as spectacular as some of England’s other wins at Wembley in tournament football – at times, it was uneventful – but they had much to savour on a day when many a player proved a point. So, too, did their manager, whose key decisions paid off.
Sterling finished the domestic season with a solitary goal in 16 matches for Manchester City. A new breed of challengers had emerged but Gareth Southgate retained faith in a talisman and he scored for the 13th time in his last 17 caps. “His goalscoring record suggests we should have faith in him,” Southgate said. He did.
Sterling’s selfless running had been integral to England’s progress in the World Cup but, as Southgate said: “He has had this hex in the tournaments not being able to get the goal.”
After 12 barren matches, his wait ended in a week in which he was awarded an MBE. “I have always said that if I played at Wembley in a major tournament I am scoring,” he said. His prophecy came true.
Sterling’s ability to run in behind Croatia’s defence, which earned him selection ahead of Jack Grealish, had troubled them before Kalvin Phillips provided a defence-splitting pass and he tucked his shot under Dominik Livakovic. There was just a hint of Paul Ince’s ball to Alan Shearer in the Euro ’96 opener.
Southgate might claim an assist, too. Phillips was no automatic choice, even to understudy Jordan Henderson, but he flourished. He had mustered the only shot on target in the first half, with a volley that was parried, passed the ball with accuracy and penetration and brought energy while operating in a more advanced role than he does for Leeds.
“Kalvin has had a fantastic start to his international career,” Southgate said. “He was immense throughout.” Phillips and Mason Mount knitted the game together as this time England were not out-passed by Luka Modric. “The key is to get pressure on Croatia’s midfield players and we managed to do that,” the manager said.
Unsurprisingly, Mount exerted an influence. He whipped a free kick just over the bar and supplied an inviting cross when Harry Kane skewed a shot over. Otherwise, the captain was quiet, which was a reason why England were restricted to a solitary goal.
They almost struck earlier. Southgate flanked Kane with a Manchester City pair and Sterling came infield to find Phil Foden, whose shot rebounded back off the inside of the post. Foden was one of five tournament debutants in England’s starting 11. He looked unfazed by the occasion; one delightful touch, taking the ball out of the air, was proof of his quality.
Defensively, England were solid. Jordan Pickford held a tame effort from Modric and Ante Rebic angled a half-volley wide but Croatia were muted as they looked a lesser side compared to the 2018 World Cup finalists. Southgate had preferred Kieran Trippier to the specialist left-backs in his quartet at the back.
The Atletico Madrid man scarcely offered an attacking threat but proved reliable. Tyrone Mings was another whose selection could have been questioned after shaky displays in the friendlies but he was authoritative and made a fine challenge on Ivan Perisic in the penalty box.
“Our defence stood firm but we defended as a team,” Southgate said. “We were in control for the majority of the game and looked dangerous.” Now they can look forward to a derby with Scotland.