The Three Lions finished off the group stages of Euro 2020 with a confident 1-0 win in a top of the table clash versus the Czech Republic. Raheem Sterling continued to head the goal charts for the nation, and helped England finish top of Group D.
Both teams had already ensured qualification into the round of 16, as they both sat on four points before kick-off, but the number one spot was still up for grabs, ultimately deciding their next opponents going into the knockout’s.
With qualification already guaranteed for Gareth Southgate, this was a perfect opportunity to bring in fresh legs, showing perfectly just how much depth he has in his squad.
We saw three players gain their first start in the tournament with Harry Maguire, Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka being selected. All three were excellent, with Saka claiming the Star of the Match award.
The whole nation had been screaming to see Grealish make his first start and he did not disappoint, as the Aston Villa captain brought intensity and creativity into the England attack, and contributing an all-important assist.
With Maguire’s fitness improving but lacking game time, it was an astute decision by Southgate to start the Manchester United captain in order to make sure he was ready for the knockout rounds. Despite Tyrone Mings having an impressive first two games, many would agree that if fit, Maguire is a must start in the defence and he showed so last night with his experience and leadership. Something that perhaps England have been missing so far.
The first half saw similarities of the first 45 minutes against Croatia and Scotland, as England started off well with a lot of energy going forward. Hitting the post early doors has become a habit for England, as Sterling was found by a perfect ball from Luke Shaw on the left flank. The Manchester City forward was unlucky with his lob over the Czech goalkeeper which hit the wrong side of the post in only the second minute.
Saka and Grealish made instant impacts in their positions, as they got on the ball and carried it forward with pace and looked to be creative in the final third. There was a lot of excitement in Wembley each time either was on the ball, and their influence was clear in the goal that put England top of the group. Saka brilliantly picking the ball up from inside his own half, taking on players and crossing the ball which ended up at the feet of Grealish. The playmaker was able to find a great opening inside the Czech’s penalty area and put in a lofted cross for Sterling to head home on 12 minutes.
England’s captain Harry Kane was able to register his first shot on target in the tournament as he was picked out beautifully by Maguire. The captain cut back on to his right foot in the box, but his shot was met with a solid save from Tomas Vaclik in the Czech goal.
As the first half progressed, the Czechs grew into the match, as they put pressure on England’s defence and the game began to open up. Jordan Pickford was required to pull off a strong save after a well hit shot from Tomas Holes as he aimed for the far-left corner. West Ham’s Tomas Soucek also found himself in the England penalty box as he does so often in the Premier League, but luckily his first time shot drifted wide as Pickford was rooted to the spot.
Going into the second half, Liverpool captain, Jordan Henderson, made his first appearance at the tournament as he replaced Declan Rice at half time. It was encouraging to see the vice-captain beginning to return to match fitness, and provide the experience and leadership we all know he offers.
The second half slowed down as England controlled the tempo as they looked to see the result out. The Czechs did not stop in their pursuit of an opener though, as they continued to create but were met nearly every time by a strong back 5 including Pickford, who had an excellent game between the posts. Tomas Pekhart had England fans holding their breath with a late chance with seven minutes to go, but the Czech forward was unable to test Pickford.
Henderson had a goal ruled out minutes later as the Liverpool skipper strayed offside, with the game finishing 1-0 and leaving one of England’s most experience players still looking for his first goal in an England shirt.
Southgate was sure to provide minutes to players that had not featured heavily so far in the tournament with Marcus Rashford, Jude Bellingham and Jadon Sancho all coming on throughout the half.
It was solid 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic, and it meant that England finished top of the group. They will now be keeping a very close eye on the outcome of the ‘Group of Death’ (Group F) as they will be facing the team who comes second out of France, Germany, Portugal, or Hungary.
Southgate will take many positives from the game with the three changes of Grealish, Saka and Maguire putting in excellent performances. The fitness of Maguire and Henderson was also encouraging, with the two leaders being a big influence within the squad.
For only the second time, England have managed to keep a clean sheet throughout the group stages of a major international tournament. The first time? 1966, and we all know how that turned out. Last night will most certainly have given Southgate a big headache in terms of selection, in which he can only be grateful for.