It was an afternoon of firsts at Wembley. The first time England had ever won their opening match at the European Championships; the first goal scored at a major tournament by Raheem Sterling; and the first England goal made by a Leeds player this century.
Each first was of true significance, too. This is a finals group that could have unfolded rather uncomfortably had England dropped points yesterday, not least with a grudge match against Scotland up next.
For Sterling, his place has been under pressure from people’s choice Jack Grealish, among others, of late, so to take the match-winning goal with such bravery and confidence was a huge vindication of his selection.
As for Kalvin Phillips, the goal creator, his delicious pass in the 57th minute capped what many considered to be the man of the match performance. He was excellent in midfield, with Declan Rice protecting the back four, a performance so assured the phrase ‘YorkshirePirlo’ began trending on social media.
Raheem Sterling scored the winning goal as England beat Croatia 1-0 at a sunny Wembley to begin their Euro 2020 bid well
The Three Lions took the lead just ten minutes after half-time when Sterling slammed home Kalvin Phillips’ cool run and pass
Sterling congratulated Phillips (left) after scoring the goal – the Leeds man beat a couple of defenders before playing him in
Earlier, as news leaked of Southgate’s starting XI, Phillips’ inclusion had been one of several talking points. There are certainly more widely appealing talents out there, more populist options – but not having seen 90 minutes of this match.
Sterling got an ovation when he was replaced by Dominic Calvert-Lewin two minutes into injury-time, but had Phillips left the field alone, if anything, his would have been loudest.
And Southgate? He’s off to a flier – again. Just as England hit the ground running in Russia two years ago, so this was a result to lift the nation’s spirits, and a performance to get doubters behind the manager.
He called it right, with his choices at full-back and centre-half, by keeping faith with Sterling, by not gambling with an XI that may have delighted some of a cavalier disposition but would not have afforded Croatia the respect their tournament record deserves. England were playing the 2018 World Cup finalists here, let’s not forget that.
So this side served its purpose. Controlled the game – or most of it – against a good technical side with enough invention to decide it, too. By allowing Phillips the freedom to attack and keeping Rice solely as a holding player, Southgate also sprung a small surprise that Croatia struggled to deal with.
England could have added more to their tally as captain Harry Kane spurned a good chance to double the hosts’ lead
England’s assist maker and clean sheet vindicated Phillips’ (middle) and Kieran Trippier (right) selection on Sunday
England (4-2-3-1): Pickford 6.5; Walker 7, Stones 8, Mings 8.5, Trippier 7; Phillips, Rice; Foden 7.5 (sub Rashford 71), Mount 7, Sterling 8.5 (sub Calvert Lewin 90+2), Kane 7 (sub Bellingham 82)
Subs not used: D Henderson (GK), Shaw, Grealish, J Henderson, Coady, White, Johnstone, James , Saka
Manager: Gareth Southgate 8
Goal: Sterling 57
Croatia (4-3-3): Livakovic 6.5; Vrsaljko 6, Vida 7, Caleta-Car 7, Gvardiol 6; Modric 8, Brozovic 7.5 (sub Vlasic 70), Kovacic 7.5 (sub Pasalic 8; Kramaric 6 (sub Brekalo 70), Rebic 5.5 (sub Petkovic 78), Perisic 6.5
Manager: Zlatko Dalic 6.5
Subs not used: Kalinic, Budimir, Skoric, Badelj, Juranovic, Sluga, Bradaric, Ivanusec
Bookings: Brozovic, Kovacic, Caleta-Car
Referee: Daniele Orsat 6.5
Phillips caused them trouble all game, from a shot in the ninth minute, to a sublime set-up for the winning goal. His run took him past two guarding Croatians before he slipped a sublime ball to Sterling, making a trademark run in behind the defence.
Full-back Sime Vrsaljko saw the danger and came haring across but Sterling beat him to the ball sending it past the advancing Domink Livakovic in goal.
It was 1999 when a Leeds man last claimed an assist for England: David Batty. That, however, was against Luxembourg in a match England won 6-0. This was a somewhat tighter affair.
Interesting to consider, too, that had this tournament gone ahead as scheduled in summer 2020, Phillips would not have been part of it.
He didn’t make his debut until last September, against Denmark and even now is probably only in due to Jordan Henderson’s injury. Funny how fate dictates the play at tournaments.
As for Sterling, England have now won all of the 11 internationals in which he has scored, overtaking the record of ten which he held with Martin Chivers.
He has also played more games at Wembley without losing than any player in England’s history.
For a supposedly controversial selection, he is quite the talisman.
Of course, there will always be quibbles. It could have been over earlier had Sterling not shot wildly in the 74th minute, when the ball was headed back to him by Marcus Rashford.
And Harry Kane had a quiet game, compounded by an incident in the 61st minute when he should have converted a Mason Mount cross at the far post, but instead struck the ball against defender Caleta-Car before colliding painfully with a post.
Tyrone Mings (left) was another player Southgate put his faith in to excel at the back during the Wembley victory
It looked problematic at first but Kane soldiered on until the 82nd minute, replaced by Jude Bellingham. At the end there was no suggestion his withdrawal was much more than a precaution.
So it was a fine day, even if the scoreline could have had greater emphasis.
Bottom line, there isn’t a soul in the England camp who would not have bought this result on a handshake prior to kick-off, and Southgate would have enjoyed seeing his judgement calls largely vindicated.
Aside from Phillips and Sterling, Kieran Trippier was England’s best full-back, despite playing on the left, while Tyrone Mings was excellent besides John Stones at centre-half.
Indeed, in the opening ten minutes, England twice rocked Croatia, coming close to the perfect start. High tempo, ambitious, Croatia found them hard to handle and the game was only six minutes old when Sterling burst through, feeding Manchester City team-mate Phil Foden.
Phil Foden had the best chance of the first-half, striking the inside of the post by cutting inside and curling with his left foot
Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions have taken a positive step in the group ahead of their highly-anticipated clash with Scotland
Having dyed his hair peroxide blond in a nod to Paul Gascoigne and Euro 96, Foden certainly isn’t shying away from expectations.
And it did nothing to dampen them that his first touch of note was a lovely, low curling shot, that defeated goalkeeper Livakovic and struck the inside of his far post.
The ball rebounded out, almost striking Livakovic as it did. It could have been a very unfortunate ricochet.
Within three minutes England had forced a corner, which was cleared, but met on the volley by Phillips and returned through a crowd of bodies.
The merest touch could have caused a dangerous diversion, but somehow the ball passed through untroubled and Livakovic saved well, having seen it late.
Yet after a start of such promise, a note of caution and a familiar malaise. England slowed in the strength-sapping heat and the game slipped into Croatia’s control for a short period.
Not that Croatia were creating chances – Jordan Pickford barely had a save to make – and looked largely devoid of the cutting edge needed to win tournaments.
Yet Luka Modric was dropping deep – in many ways Southgate’s selections were a nod to his vast talent – and had begun to dictate the pace.
Livakovic had said Croatia’s midfield was better than anything England could offer, and certainly one component of it can be on his day.
The more Modric got on the ball the more anxious England appeared and the half concluded with a row between Stones and Pickford, the defender unimpressed at the way his team-mate was trying to kick, rather than play, his way out of trouble – affording the Croats too much possession.
Certainly the anxiety in some of his clearances seemed unnecessary.
This was a very different match from the one in Moscow three years ago, when Modric was far nearer his prime. The better team won that day; the better team won here, too.
Croatia did very little to test the England back line with captain and talisman Luka Modric (above) rather ineffective