KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY: Football is coming home again but England will need to raise their game if they wish to progress as far as they did the last time they reached the Euro semi-finals on home soil in 1996.
A 1-0 victory over the Czech Republic, courtesy of Raheem Sterling’s second goal of the finals, offered the confidence of a Group D platform of three games unbeaten and three clean sheets. Following them as runners-up were Croatia who beat Scotland 3-1 at Hampden Park, Glasgow.
Croatia finished level on four points with the Czechs but overtook them by virtue of scoring more goals, four to three. Scotland’s dream of winning to progress was transformed into the nightmare of instant elimination.
England will play the runners-up from Group F at Wembley next Tuesday; Croatia face the runners-up of Group E in Copenhagen on Monday. Czech Republic must wait to know their fate once the best third-placed teams have all been sorted out.
The run-up for England had been confused by the coronavirus twist which saw midfielder Mason Mount and leftback Ben Chilwell despatched into isolation until next Tuesday morning because of their contact with Chelsea club-mate Billy Gilmour immediately after the goalless draw with Scotland.
England manager Gareth Southgate brought in Jack Grealish, fit-again Harry Maguire and Bukayo Saka and it was the Arsenal winger who caught the eye on the right wing with his eager pace and willingness to run at defenders.
Saka had displaced Phil Foden, on one yellow card, and may well earn the right to hold his place in the starting line-up. It was Saka who turned the Czech defence in the 12th minute so Grealish could cross for Raheem Sterling to open the scoring.
That was a 16th international goal for Sterling who had also hit a post in only the second minute. The goal also proved decisive in a match which featured a flurry of attacks from both teams but comparatively little in terms of danger.
Saka said: “The instructions from the manager were to play my own game, have fun, play free, express myself – and that’s what I did. It’s vital to be back here for the round of 16 and having the fans back will give us a lot of confidence whoever we come up against.”
Czech Republic went close once in each half. First England keeper Jordan Pickford made a fine diving save from Tomas Holes then substitute Tomas Pekhart thumped a shot just wide seven minutes from time.
Coach Jaroslav Silhavy looked on the bright side in defeat. He said: “Our finishing wasn’t great but the round of 16 is a one-off game, anything can happen. I believe we are capable of springing a surprise and advancing further.”
Croatia step up
In Glasgow Nikola Vlasic put Croatia ahead after 17 minutes only for Scotland, against the run of play and possession, to snatch an equaliser through Callum McGregor three minutes before half-time.
Croatia deservedly regained command, and with it progress to the knockout stage, with fine second-half strikes from veteran captain Luka Modric and Ivan Perisic.
Scotland goalkeeper David Marshall said: “We had positivity after the England performance and we started the game well so this was a big disappointment but we can’t argue with the result.
“In a short space of time we’ll be meeting up again to try to qualify for the World Cup. We’ve got this tournament experience now which will make us better as a group.”
Group D – Czech Republic v England
Gareth Southgate, England manager: “The Czechs are a really good side, they use the ball really well and they’re difficult to break down, but there’s more to come from us. We’re not fluent, but we have moments when we look a good side. There’s a lot of good things that we’re doing and a lot of positives for us. We wanted to win the group and we wanted to stay at Wembley – we’ll wait and see who we play.”
Raheem Sterling, England goal-scorer: “We kept the ball better today and found the gaps well, and got the result we needed. Saka and Grealish got in the pockets really well, turned and got on the ball and it’s brilliant to have players around you who can create goals. That’s part of tournament football, different players for different matches. If you don’t concede goals you win football matches if you can score at the other end – and we’ve been doing that really well.”
Czech Republic: Vaclík – Coufal, Čelůstka, Kalas, Bořil – Souček, Holeš (Vydra 84)- Masopust (Hložek 64), Darida (Král 64), Jankto (Ševčík 46) – Schick (Pekhart 75).
England: Pickford – Walker, Stones (Mings 79), Maguire, Shaw – Phillips, Rice (Henderson 46) – Saka (Sancho 84), Grealish (Bellingham 68), Sterling (Rashford 67)- Kane.
Referee: Artur Dias (Por).
Group D – Croatia v Scotland
Zlatko Dalić, Croatia coach: “I want to thank everyone who has supported us. You are our strength and we will make you proud. The last ten days have been a big test for us. We’ve shown what we can do, and everything will be easier from now on.”
Luka Modrić, Croatia captain: “We are happy because we played well and qualified for the next round. We were not happy with performances in our first two matches and we knew we could be better. When we play like this, we are a danger to everyone.”
Steve Clarke, Scotland manager: “I am sad for the players. We waited a long time to get to a tournament and it was a good group of players that got us here. Over the course of the group stage there was a lot of good stuff, but ultimately not the points we needed.”
Croatia: Livaković – Juranović, Lovren, Vida, Gvardiol (Barišić 70) – Kovačić, Brozović – Perišić (Rebić 81), Modrić, Vlašić (Ivanušec 76) – Petković (Kramarić 71).
Scotland: Marshall – McTominay, Hanley (McKenna 33), Tierney – O’Donnell (Patterson 84), McGinn, Robertson – Armstrong (Fraser 70), McGregor – Dykes, Adams (Nisbet 84).
Referee: Rapallini (Arg).