Football - England 1, Croatia 0
Sunday June 13, 2021
By Kevan James.
It is still a little strange, playing the first game of the second most important tournament the England team can participate in, the European Championships, in front of a Wembley that is only a quarter full (the World Cup being the first). But these are still strange times, including the idea that England can win that opening game. Win the national team did however and deservedly so - just.
Above - Sterling celebrates his goal
Frank Augstein-Pool AFP / Getty Images
Croatia are no mugs, we know that. Schooled from an early age in going an extra mile or more, this is a country that knows what adversity means. And that is reflected in the performances of their football team. When these two nations met in the semi-final of the World Cup two years ago, England could possibly have been so far ahead by half-time the game would have been over in all but name. Croatia however knew how to dig deep and resist, hence their dominant second-half performance.
One had the impression this time around, at times at least, they might do something similar but England under Gareth Southgate have learned how to dig deep themselves. Not that England had to indulge in any backs-to-the wall desperation; quite the opposite in fact. England had most of the possession, had more on-target attempts than Croatia did and never really looked under significant threat.
Excelling for England, Kalvin Phillips dances his way past Croatia
What England did need to do was play within the limits imposed by very hot temperatures (the usual requirement in these tournaments), the need to manage a game, exercise patience and keep the ball. This they did for much of the game and when they did not have the ball, maintain concentration, keep the shape of the team right and regain possession without giving away needless free kicks.
That said, England had far too many moments when trying to play quick short passes, did so to players tightly marked and lost the ball too easily. This is where the best of the rest will punish any team so one has to hope that the learning process continues and quickly. There will be stiffer tests than this one.
Even so, England still looked like a team that means business this summer and the goal was a classic of individual class, skill and razor-sharp passing. One could be forgiven for asking who Kalvin Phillips was when he first arrived on the international scene. For those who may not know, he is Leeds born and bred, plays for Leeds United, is tenacious in the tackle, and is a very good player.
First dancing his way past two lunging Croatians, his slide-rule pass to Raheem Sterling resulted in a finish with equal a lesson in how to do it. Sterling has been criticised in the past but his goal-scoring record for England these days isn't bad at all. Many players, of all nationalities even at this level, have spooned the ball, lost it at the last moment or poked at it weakly in hope but only given it to a grateful goalkeeper. The best however, keep their heads, knowing that they are about to be on the end of a last-ditch tackle or clattered by the onrushing 'keeper (or both). Sterling's choice of moment to shoot was accurate in every way and nothing short of classy.
Sterling scores for England
BBC News / Getty Images
Tournament opening games are often cagey affairs, sometimes dull and this one was at times. Nobody wants to lose their first game so teams tend to play sideways and backwards, shutting down any space and cancelling each other out. Although it verged on it at times, at least this match wasn't boring, as is so often the case. The big question now is how will both teams respond?
Games have to be won and there are two other sides in the group wanting the same. Neither of them are bad sides, both will present England with very different challenges, especially the next one. It may or may not help that Scotland will travel to Wembley, rather than England to Hampden Park but come the day, all that will matter is the dimensions of the field of play, not where it is. It may also be three points and a foot-and-a-half in the next round for the winners but local bragging rights will also count.
© Kevan James / KJM Today 2021