England delivered an efficient but hardly scintillating display to beat Czech Republic 1-0 with an early Raheem Sterling header on Tuesday to advance to Euro 2020’s last 16 as Group D winners, with the Czechs through as one of the best third-placed teams.
Sterling scored his and England‘s second goal of the tournament in the 12th minute but the initial injection of pace, intensity and crowd-pleasing excitement brought by Jack Grealish and teenage man of the match Bukayo Saka gradually dissipated as the game petered out into an utterly forgettable second half.
Neither coach will mind though as they now begin to plot their assaults on the knockout phase.
England return to Wembley on Tuesday to face the runners up from Group E likely to be France, Germany or Portugal – while the Czechs must wait to find out which group winner they play.
They were dislodged from second place by Croatia, who beat Scotland 3-1 and will play the Group E runners up – Sweden, Slovakia, Spain or Poland in Copenhagen on Monday.
On the positive side of England‘s balance sheet is two wins and a draw, three clean sheets, a return to Wembley and a good number of players getting a taste of the action.
Conversely, they have scored only two goals – the lowest by any team ever to top a Euros group – were sluggish and over-cautious for long periods of all three games and the midfield combination and approach seemingly remain anything but settled. They also face a potentially daunting last 16 game next.
Sterling, unsurprisingly, opted to focus on the positive: “If you don’t concede goals you win football matches, you just need to score at the other end,” he said.
“People were disappointed in the Scotland game a few days ago but we didn’t concede. The most important thing was to win the group. It is tournament football and it will be difficult but we need to do what we are doing.
“I think there are positives from the game. We kept the ball better today. It gave us more attacking options. We got in the gaps really well, played some good football and got the goal we needed.”
It was Sterling who was at the sharp end of England‘s early attacks. He struck a post in the second minute when he lifted the ball past advancing goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik – the third time England had hit a post of the same goal early in each match.
Ten minutes later he hit the target with a close-range header from a delicious floated cross by Grealish after a driving run by Saka had splintered the Czech rearguard.
Making his first appearance of the tournament, the 19-year-old wide man showed a willingness to run with the ball that was painfully absent from England’s first two performances and, with Grealish also a constant menace, the hosts looked much more threatening.
Harry Kane looked sharper too and had a shot well saved late in the first half by Vaclik, but that early promise was gradually replaced by the all-too-familiar caution and England barely mustered another meaningful attempt.
The Czechs were neat and tidy without carrying a huge amount of penalty box threat, though Tomas Holes had a shot palmed clear by Jordan Pickford and Tomas Soucek fired just wide in the first half.
Substitute Jordan Henderson thought he had scored his first goal for England on his 60th appearance five minutes from time after a scramble, only to see it ruled out for offside.
Overall though it was desperately thin gruel for most of the second half, with the loudest cheers reserved for the big screen announcements of Croatia’s goals that eliminated Scotland.