Adam Williams, Gadsby’s England Football Writer
England 1:0 Croatia (Sterling 57’)
The whistle peeps and the fog clears. It isn’t until the opening throes of a tournament that we know what an England team is really about.
We’re only at the foothills of this Championship but today, bathed in glorious Wembley sunshine, there was enough to suggest that England have the facilities to get somewhere close to the snow-capped summit. There was enough to see that we have cultivated a generation of players with poise and purpose. There was enough to ask, is this a swagger I see before me? For the first time in 10 attempts, England won in a Euros curtain-raiser. They earned a healthy tan while doing so.
At previous tournaments, anxiety has settled in players’ bones long before opening night. But there was a zip in England’s passing that doesn’t come from legs shackled by doubt. What’s best is that the self-assuredness was demonstrably justified. Modric, Brozovic and Kovacic are a classic cars show of a midfield but they lost out to England’s boy racers. Modric had a few moments of elan but Croatia’s ritzy trio was successfully barbed and pacified by the equipoise of Phillips and Rice. Making just his ninth England appearance, Phillips in particular was a magnetic presence in the middle of the park. He played a more proactive role than he has done for Leeds United this season, but was every bit as assiduous in the tackle and the press. It was one of his many fits of creative brilliance that led to England’s only goal as he smoked through the guts of the Croatia midfield before easing the ball through to Raheem Sterling MBE. The local hero squeezed the ball under the Croatia goalkeeper and screamed off in riotous celebration with the second half 10 minutes old. His first goal at a major tournament.
Sterling too was magnificent, though less explicitly than Phillips. There were a handful of butter-booted touches and one particularly bad miss, but he more than made up for it with his exploratory running and flashes of verve. Croatia, a team of magicians and men, were not at their steely best. They did creak slowly into the game, particularly in the last 15 minutes of the first half. But England resisted. On the rare occasion a situation demanded an act of heroism, England’s defenders delivered. Tyrone Mings, who admittedly did not shine in the pre-tournament friendlies, was resolute, John Stones rock solid. Further up the pitch, England looked like a side that played better when there was tempo in the game. It gave them more gaps to slip through, more wounds to open.
Jude Bellingham, 16 days short of his 18th birthday, is one who has the repertoire to do exactly that. He became the youngest to play at a European Championship when he replaced a curiously quiet Kane for the last 10 minutes. Another of England’s obnoxiously talented youths, Phil Foden, started the game and started it well, jagging in from the right channel before slapping the foot of the post with the match in its infancy.
So, a winning start in the competition for the first time ever, and one against our old friends on the Adriatic coast. Some demons will have been laid to rest today, of that there’s no doubt. But as the nation heads pubward on Friday evening, they will know that Scotland represent a different, more intimate challenge. When the bluster and the bombast judder to a halt on both sides of the border, it will be a match soundtracked by the jangling of nerves and wringing of hands. But anxieties will end at the white line. These players are immune.
20 Foden Booked at 64 mins – Substituted for Rashford at 71′
9 Kane – Substituted for Bellingham at 82′
10 Sterling – Substituted for Calvert-Lewin at 90+2′
5 Caleta-Car Booked at 42′
11 Brozovic Booked at 66′ – Substituted for Vlasic at 70′
8 Kovacic Booked at 48′ – Substituted for Pasalic at 85′
9 Kramaric – Substituted for Brekalo at 70′
17 Rebic – Substituted for Petkovic at 78′
Referee: Daniele Orsato