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UEFA EURO 2020
Group D
Czech Republic 0:1 England (Sterling 12’)

Lee Gadsby Basannavar,
Gadsby’s England Chief Correspondent
and Host of Gadsby’s England

Patterns, parallels, symmetries, stories. Sport provides them like nothing else, and on no more epic scale than in international football. Events that seem preordained, scripts already written, destinate paths. After extraordinary drama in Budapest and Munich, as both matches—France vs Portugal and Germany vs Hungary—ended in a 2-2 draw, with England set to play all of them at one point or another over this nail-biting rollercoaster of an evening, it eventually came to pass that at the home of football in the third major tournament on English soil, England will play Germany for the third time. To 1966 and 1996, add 2021.

There really was never going to be another outcome, was there?

And what a story within a story: The final English foot to touch the ball at the last tournament belongs to the same man who will now lead England out as their manager. 25 years of demons and nightmares. One wonders how Gareth Southgate must be feeling right now.

Would we have gladly taken that? Such an oft-used expression by football pundits, and one which was in full swing last night as England beat the Czech Republic in a passive encounter to finish top of Group F.

England were sprightly in the first half as Southgate took a much simpler approach with Grealish and Saka on the wings, Kane and Sterling at the front, and effectively a revolving four-two/back six combo, Rice and Phillips the two when not part of the six, again tasked with holding fort in front of the back line while picking moments to switch to attack. Out with the intricate complications of how to accommodate Mount and Foden together, in with good old-fashioned wingers and fullbacks bombing up and down to give it some to the opponent.

It caused the Czechs no end of problems from the get-go, Grealish and Saka both excellent in finding space and beating opponents, Sterling pulling them to and fro. He looped a ball over Czech goalkeeper Vaclik in the second minute to hit the post, joining Foden and Stones, remarkably all denied by the woodwork in the opening ten minutes of each group game.

England Win One To Forget, To Create One Never To Be Forgotten

A few minutes later, neither the post not the Czechs could prevent him impishly squeezing his way to the back post to head in an exquisite Jack Grealish floating arc of a cross for his second goal of the tournament. The drop-Sterling-for-Grealish rants were always mad ones; those calling for both Grealish and Sterling (ahem…) to start should take a little bow because it has the makings of a fearsome combination to give pause to any of England’s opponents.

The Czechs managed to get behind England at times during the first half, though Pickford was called into action just once, diving well to save from Tomas Holes, but Sterling, Grealish and Saka continued to keep England on the front foot until the break. Saka, too, must be in serious contention to start next week, especially with the still-unsolved Foden conundrum and the likely absence of Mount following the preposterous COVID ostracism of he and Ben Chilwell.

The less said about the second half, the better; the game appeared simply to swallow itself up. England lost their rhythm, the Czechs seemed about as keen to be there as a child at an exhibition of 18th Century pottery during summer break. The fact of the matter is the Czechs showed little desire to win the group, and who can really blame them when doing so would have most likely resulted in a daunting tie? No, that is now England’s burden.

England end the group stage, yes, top, undefeated and with a defence unbreached, but for a squad vaunted for its array of elegant assassins, only two goals in three games, and their most potent triggerman nowhere near a kill.

And hardly football to pump the blood through the legs to propel you onto your feet. Ah but, many say, tournament-winning teams start slowly, underperform in the group stages and then turn it on when it counts. A ‘real’ England will be unleashed on Tuesday, it will.

It’s just…

How did that turn out after tepid group stages at the 2006 and 2010 World Cups (with that other lauded “golden” crop), or the 2012 and 2016 Euros? The real England was the real England, that’s how.

So we English find ourselves in a familiar state of malaise, unaware where the water line in the glass is. Can we honestly say that about the Italians, Dutch or Belgians? And what of our old foes and opponents next week? The astonishing fright Hungary gave them tonight in a 2-2 draw should give England some comfort, but unlike England, the Germans have so many more tournament reference points with which to measure and improve their current state. They will be ready for England, they will be ready for English self-doubt.

The footballing superpowers just seem to have a sense of where they are and, to go even deeper, who they are. Year after year, England struggle to answer both these questions. If Euro2020 comes to an end for them next Tuesday—and let’s not kid ourselves this is the likelier outcome—that “wider debate” about identity will inevitably ensue, and all the talk about this team being different, unburdened by the ghosts of the past, the best players England have had for years and all that, will be dust.

History is against England, current form is underwhelming—-and that’s even without mention of the psychological and fear barriers that come with playing the Germans, and no matter how the media will whip up this squad being different, unburdened with the past, oblivious to the weight of expectation, forget it—they aren’t. Because the media keeps reminding them about the past and the weight of expectation with virtually every article, interview and sound byte hour after hour, day after day. That vicious circle isn’t going to change unless England put in a superlative performance on Tuesday—and win. Finally win, to rip off the shackles that have paralyzed the Three Lions against this opponent since 1970, when then-world champions England, 2-0 up against then-West Germany, were sucker-punched into a 3-2 defeat. It was a seminal, humiliating, unthinkable moment that still permeates poisonously through England’s bloodline.

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The positives? Well, apart from the Bloemfontein bloodbath, England have actually outplayed Germany in most tournament encounters, certainly in the three classics, the 1966 World Cup final, the 1990 World Cup semifinal and the 1996 European Championships semifinal, but it was the penalty curse that did for them in the latter two. And who would bet against a spot-kick ordeal next Tuesday? But no…just no…please.

Oh alright, let’s mention it then, even though it was not a tournament game:

GERMANY 1, ENGLAND 5. Munich, September 2001.

Yes. FIVE.

That felt good.

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Germany do not have the air of invincibility they had in 2014, but they still present a colossal obstacle to England. Neuer, Kroos, Sané, Gündogan, Havertz, a resurgent Thomas Müller….if they turn it on as they did against Portugal, England could be in for a torrid evening.

The World Cup semifinal was undoubtedly the biggest game of Gareth Southgate’s England tenure. To be 90 minutes away from the greatest sporting occasion on Earth is, well, probably the second greatest occasion on Earth. Yet it was not a matchup with the same magnitude, nor did it have the epic narrative of England vs Germany, let alone England vs Germany at Wembley. Tuesday will be an occasion like no other. This young England team have much to overcome, physically, mentally and existentially, to put paid to an appalling and shocking statistic: England have not beaten an elite team in the knockout stages of a major tournament since….the 1966 World Cup Final. Against Germany. At Wembley. (Spain in Euro 96 does not count because they had never won a tournament at the time and were themselves perennial underachievers.)

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England vs Germany at Wembley. Stories. Stories within stories. Twists and turns, breathtaking skills, titanic battles, irresistible forces against immovable objects, ecstasy, elation, triumph, agony, heartbreak, tears. Memories. Such memories. Two of the greatest matches ever to grace the sport, played in the most famous arena in the world. Hurst, Moore, Charlton, Beckenbauer, Gascoigne, Shearer, Pearce, Möller, Sammer, Kunst, Southgate…

The third act is upon us.

Czech Republic

Formation 4-2-3-1

  • 1 Vaclik
  • 5 Coufal
  • 3 Celustka
  • 6 Kalas
  • 18 Boril Booked at 61′
  • 9 Holes Substituted for Vydra at 84′
  • 15 Soucek
  • 12 Masopust Substituted for Hlozek at 64′
  • 8 Darida Substituted for Kral at 64′
  • 14 Jankto Substituted for Sevcik at 45′
  • 10 Schick Substituted for Pekhart at 75′

Substitutes

  • 2 Kaderábek
  • 4 Brabec
  • 7 Barak
  • 11 Krmencik
  • 13 Sevcik
  • 16 Mandous
  • 19 Hlozek
  • 20 Vydra
  • 21 Kral
  • 22 Mateju
  • 23 Koubek
  • 24 Pekhart

England

Formation 4-2-3-1

  • 1 Pickford
  • 2 Walker
  • 5 Stones Substituted for Mings at 79′
  • 6 Maguire
  • 3 Shaw
  • 14 Phillips
  • 4 Rice Substituted for Henderson at 45′
  • 25 Saka Substituted for Sancho at 84′
  • 7 Grealish Substituted for Bellingham at 68′
  • 10 Sterling Substituted for Rashford at 67′
  • 9 Kane

Substitutes

  • 8 Henderson
  • 11 Rashford
  • 12 Trippier
  • 13 Ramsdale
  • 15 Mings
  • 16 Coady
  • 17 Sancho
  • 18 Calvert-Lewin
  • 22 White
  • 23 Johnstone
  • 24 James
  • 26 Bellingham

Referee:
Artur Manuel Soares Dias

Attendance:
19,104