KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY: Playing host can be a curse more than a blessing. For England often more than the former than the latter with a weight of expectation born of a footballing history which has veered erratically from pride to baffled confusion.
This time at least England achieved a small slice of history by defeating Croatia 1-0 at Wembley in Group D after having previously never won their opening match at the finals. They did so, courtesy of a second-half goal from Raheem Sterling against opposition who had ended their last World Cup campaign at the semi-finals in Russia in 2018.
Back then manager Gareth Southgate was considered a sympathetic comparative novice at the international game, despite his playing record and youth team achievements.
Now times have changed. Reaching the last four, almost to their own surprise, in Russia had revived all the old pressures.
All the more at this tournament because England play all their group matches at Wembley which will also stage the semi-finals and final.
England charged forward from kickoff almost like a rugby team chasing down the opening punt. In the fifth minute Phil Foden cut in from the right and curled a shot around Dominik Livakovic and against the keeper’s right-hand post.
Minutes later midfielder Kalvin Phillips had a low drive well saved by the diving Livakovic.
Croatia began to adjust to the pace and stifle England’s attack and go hunting on their own account. One right-wing cross skimmed across the England penalty box but Ivan Perisic sliced his hurried shot high and wide.
The pace dropped, the prospects of chances faded and the game drifted into a midfield stalemate.
England, refreshed by the halftime break, finally delivered the goods in the 57th minute with a goal out of nowhere.
The determined Phillips forced his way through Croatia’s midfield shield and slid a pass through for Sterling to shoot home via Livakovic’s flailing arm. This was Sterling’s first goal in a major tournament finals after 12 blank appearances in Euro and World Cups.
His timing was also doubly perfect after the award to him of an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours for his services to charity.
Sterling could have managed further service for his country in the 74th minute after the ball fell loose in space after a free kick but he snatched at the chance and lumped it high over the bar. Croatia proved unable to capitalise.
England: Pickford – Walker, Stones, Mings, Trippier – Phillips, Rice – Foden (Rashford 70), Mount, Sterling (Calvert-Lewin 90) – Kane (Bellingham 81).
Croatia: Livakovic – Vrsaljko, Vida, Caleta-Car, Gvardiol – Brozovic (Vlasic 70) – Kramaric (Brekalo 70), Modric, Kovacic (Pasalic 84), Perisic – Rebic (B Petkovic 77).
Referee: Daniele Orsato (Ita).