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England win to top the group but bigger Euro 2020 tests now await

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Sterling celebrates his goal match-winning goal (PA Wire)
Sterling celebrates his goal match-winning goal (PA Wire)

England are at least staying home. Gareth Southgate’s side did enough in the game and the group to finish first, but whether they’ve shown enough to win the tournament is a much bigger question.

We will start to find out soon enough. As early as Tuesday, England will face a much harder task than an awkward Czech Republic, that were dismissed 1-0 in a game that rarely rose beyond “tactical”. One of France, Germany, Portugal or Hungary will await in the last 16.

For all the prevarications about whether it would have been better to finish first or second, a runners-up spot would have meant meeting one of those sides in the quarter-finals anyway, and England surely have a better chance with home advantage.

The Wembley crowd were in much better mood here than on Friday, from the off. There were no boos, for one, which was already a contrast to both games so far.

They had already been heartened by the inclusion of Jack Grealish after Mason Mount’s self-isolation, and the sparkling performances of the Aston Villa playmaker and Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka.

They repeatedly lifted the whole occasion before going off. England still haven’t taken off, and this wasn’t quite the statement performance Southgate spoke of and many feel is warranted.

Its defining quality was still pragmatic calculation and structure - something improved by the returns of Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, the latter as a sub.

It also means it’s still only two goals in three games, but maybe that’s not to be sniffed at in an awkward group and a competition where so many teams have historically grown as it’s gone on. That is maybe where there is the most encouragement.

As patchy and disparate as England’s three group games have been, there has been one distinctive pattern. They have started games very quickly, and quite impressively. That has actually been when most of their big chances have been. Sterling has had many of them, and it’s as if he almost takes teams by surprise with his willingness to burst from deep. Czech Republic were given due warning with that second-minute lob against the post. They didn’t heed it. Or, maybe, they couldn’t stop it.

The movement of Grealish and Saka was repeatedly causing the Czechs problems, and pulling them out of position. The truth was they were bringing the game to life any time they got on the ball.

That was one difference. Another was that England finally got that early goal. It was not a coincidence the two young stars were central to the move, albeit through their wide play. Saka first forced the Czechs with another electric run, only to slightly overhit his cross. That was merely the opportunity for Grealish to express himself as he made one of his own more elastic runs, jinking in before chipping in.

Sterling gets the team ahead after 12 minutes (Getty Images)
Sterling gets the team ahead after 12 minutes (Getty Images)

Sterling was there again. It is one of the little subplots of England’s tournament that their top scorer in Euro 2020 has been offered up as part exchange for the overall top scorer in the squad, as Kane’s future remains open.

His present did look that bit brighter. Maybe it was the movement of Saka and Grealish, maybe it was motivation after recent criticism, but he did seem that bit more mobile. It brought a classic Kane move in the 25th minute – and his first shot on target in the tournament – as he cut back and unleashed in the box, only for Czech goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik to put up a strong hand. It was encouraging, but the one caveat was that a fully firing Kane would probably have gone low.

England weren’t yet fully firing themselves.

They had their goal, but they also had their customary first-half lull. There was yet another period where the opposition were allowed a spell of pressure, and one big moment. It had seemed that Tomas Soucek was about to ripple the net after one desperate Luke Shaw header to clear, but his shot flashed wide. The return of Harry Maguire did mean that was pretty much it, and it shouldn’t be overlooked that John Stones again looked to go up a level alongside him.

It was probably for that reason that Southgate introduced Henderson for Declan Rice, at least changing the balance of midfield. It didn’t really change the balance of the game. England were just keeping it solid and structured, something almost fully signified by the decision to take off Grealish for Jude Bellingham.

The playmaker hadn’t quite been the same since a second-half knock, but the offset was still that England had lost some of their fizz. The truth was that it developed into a pretty dull spell of the game, although that did provoke more interesting questions about this side that are far more relevant to how Southgate’s side will get on in this tournament.

Was this second half due to the edgy nature of the occasion, and England’s narrow lead, or was it more deliberate than that? Was Southgate again attempting to go for the Portuguese or French approach, and subdue a game until a chance presented itself to break?

If the latter, is that advisable when the talent is so front-loaded? We’ll start to find out in a few days.

England have ultimately done what would be described as a professional job in the group as a whole. They will need more than that for the tournament as a whole. We’ll start to find out how much more on Tuesday. Wembley may offer a few home truths.

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