RAHEEM Sterling grew up just a corner kick away from Wembley and had the national stadium rocking after shooting England to victory in their opening Euro 2020 tie against Croatia. Home supporters raucously proclaimed “Football's Coming Home”, the anthem from Euro 96, afterwards.
Terry Venables led England to the semi-finals that year, with a young Gareth Southgate in his side, and the latter is now hoping to go all the way and win the Henri Delauney trophy for the first time.
Although this was an ultimately nervy win for England, they thoroughly deserved it, and revenge over a Croatia side who sent Southgate's men out of the 2018 World Cup at the semi-final stage.
England should have scored more, while Croatia started slowly and rarely trouble Jordan Pickford throughout. It was exactly the start Southgate and his men wanted.
England came out of the traps quickly and almost opened the scoring after five minutes. Sterling burst in from the left, played in Phil Foden and the Manchester City man cut in from the right, curled a shot beyond keeper Dominic Livakovic, but was crestfallen when the ball struck the base of the far post and was cleared.
Livakovic was called into action soon afterwards when Kalvin Phillips pounced on a headed clearance and fired in a low volley through a crowded penalty area. Livakovic got across to stop the ball, albeit with a fumbled save.
Southgate's men were fizzing down the flanks, particularly the left, and Kieran Tripper played a clever forward pass to put Sterling away, only for the winger to waste the chance with a poor pass. His City team-mate Kyle Walker was also guilty of sloppy passing and more than once gave encouragement to the Croatians with misplaced passes. The visitors gradually saw off England's initial burst after 25 minutes and, with Luka Modric becoming increasingly influential, started to create chances of their own, but from their one clear opening, Ivan Perisic sent a sliced volley high over the bar.
Pickford was not tested until ten minutes into the second half, when Modric fired in a low shot from long range, and England looked to be running out of ideas. The sight of Jack Grealish warming up on the touchline excited home supporters, who started singing his name, but moments later they were roaring in delight after Sterling scored. Phillips played a huge part in the goal with a mazy run on the right, and when he slipped the ball forward, Sterling ran on, clipped it first time and with the aid of a deflection from Sime Vrsalkjo, the ball flew past Livakovic and into the net.
Wembley erupted in a riot of noise and colour, while the chants of “Football's Coming Home” rang round the ground. Southgate's men found an extra spring in their step. Mason Mount crossed from the left and Kane could not keep his shot down, colliding with the far past as he slid in. The England captain needed lengthy treatment was eventually replaced by Jude Bellingham, with fellow sub Marcus Rashford taking Kane's role as a central striker.
Still Croatia failed to trouble Pickford and Marcelo Brozovic missed a golden chance when he shot wide with the goal at his mercy. He was one of a rash of substitutions by Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic, who replaced his forward line, but England, with Tyrone Mings an outstanding stand-in for the injured Harry Maguire.
And Sterling should have been celebrating a double in the 74th minute when the ball dropped at his feet 15 yards from goal, but he volleyed high over the bar.
Pickford 7; Walker 6, Stones 7, Mings 8, Trippier 7; Rice 8, Phillips 9, Mount; Foden (Rashford 70), Kane (Bellingham 82) Sterling 8 (Calvert-Lewin 90+1).
Livakovic 6; Vrsaljko 5, Vida 6, Caleta-Car 5, Gvardiol 6; Brozovic 6 (Vlasic 70), Modric 8, Kovacic 6 Pasalic 85); Kramaric (Brekalo 70), Rebic 5 (Petkovic 78), Perisic.
: Daniele Orsato (Italy) 9/10