Gareth Southgate’s decision to start Raheem Sterling paid off in spectacular fashion as the Manchester City man scored the decisive goal to get England's Euro 2020 campaign off to a winning start against Croatia at Wembley.
The 1-0 victory was sweet revenge for the Three Lions, who were dumped out at the semi-final stage of the World Cup in Russia three years ago by Sunday’s opponents.
Southgate, who had faced criticism for starting Sterling over Jack Grealish and for playing two holding midfielders, was fully justified with his selections as Kalvin Phillips and Sterling linked up to break the deadlock.
Incredibly, this was England’s first ever opening game win at the European Championships, drawing five times and losing four in a run that stretches back over 50 years. The end of that unwanted record puts them in a strong position at the top of the group, with Scotland and Czech Republic facing each other tomorrow at Hampden Park.
The signs are promising for an England side that started with real intent. Phil Foden went close when his bending left footed effort rattled the post inside the opening few minutes, with a stretching Harry Kane unable to reach the rebound. The Three Lions’ pressure continued in the opening stages, with the impressive Phillips letting fly with a volley from outside the area, although Croatia stopper Dominik Livaković was equal to the effort.
Zlatko Dalić’s troops did well to weather that early storm, with England’s dominance fading as the first half progressed. In reality, it was always going to be difficult to maintain that tempo with Gareth Southgate’s men pressing in 28-degree Wembley heat.
Croatia grew into the game after the restart, with 2018 Ballon d'Or winner Luka Modric testing Jordan Pickford from distance 10 minutes into the second half.
The game sparked back into life shortly before the hour mark as a superb flowing England move saw Phillips thread a perfectly-weighted ball through to Sterling, who squeezed the ball past Livaković to register his first goal at a major tournament.
Sterling has had his critics this season, so it will have come as a huge boost for him to find the net against the World Cup finalists.
Kane, the golden boot winner in Russia, should have doubled the lead and opened his Euro 2020 account minutes later, when he met a Mason Mount cross at the back post only to see his close-range effort diverted agonisingly over the bar.
England abided by the wishes of a nation by not sitting on their lead, and Mount himself sent his free kick inches over the bar midway through the second half as the home side attempted to put the game beyond doubt, while Southgate, who has a reputation for promoting youth, made European Championship history when he introduced Jude Bellingham late on to make the Borussia Dortmund midfielder the youngest player to ever play in the competition.
In front of 22,500 rampant fans, England have gone some way to exacting revenge on Croatia, and will head into their clash with Scotland on Friday brimming with confidence.