Bukayo Saka the unlikely star as England earn dubious honour with victory over Czech Republic

As the second-half hit the doldrums, the biggest roar from England supporters came when the big screens flashed up the news that Scotland were losing to Croatia
Bukayo Saka the unlikely star as England earn dubious honour with victory over Czech Republic

England's Raheem Sterling (right) scores the winner at Wembley. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA

CZECH REPUBLIC 0 ENGLAND 1 (Sterling 12) 

How quickly fortunes change in football.

England's players, booed off by their own supporters last Friday after a dreadfully dull goalless draw with Scotland, went away from Wembley with cheers ringing in their ears, Raheem Sterling's second goal of Euro 2020 enough to beat the Czech Republic and ensure Gareth Southgate's team finished top of Group D. Scotland, meanwhile, finished bottom and are out.

England now have the dubious honour of a last 16 fixture at Wembley next Tuesday against the runners-up in Group F, which contains France, Portugal, and Germany.

The English will probably have to play better than they did against a Czech side who had already qualified, but at least Southgate's men got on the front foot and played more attacking and positive football than in their last game.

Southgate made changes, his hand forced by Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell having to go into isolation for Covid protocol breaches, and it was widely expected that he would select Jack Grealish for his first start of Euro 2020. Few forecast Bukayo Saka coming in, however, to an England team that has been crying out for width and creativity, and the teenager provided both in a man-of-the-match performance.

And it must have been doubly satisfying for Southgate that his new additions both played a huge part when Sterling made a breakthrough in the 12th minute.

Sterling should have scored earlier, with barely 90 seconds on the clock, when Luke Shaw's through ball put him one-on-one with Tomas Vaclik. Although Sterling did the right thing by lobbing the ball over the Czech keeper, he failed to steer his effort on target and the ball rebounded agonisingly off the far post.

But Sterling made amends ten minutes later by opening the scoring. Saka replaced Foden on England's right and the Arsenal man was an instant hit. The teenager started the move that led to the goal by running from deep with the ball, and although his cross was beyond Kane, Grealish retrieved the ball, exchanged passes with the England captain, and chipped a ball in from the far post. It sailed over Saka's head, but Sterling arrived at the far post to put a simple header in from close range.

It was the perfect start for England, and they deserved it for their energy and positivity, both of which had been lacking in last Friday's goalless score with Scotland. Harry Maguire also made his first appearance of the tournament after recovering from injury, and set up Kane for a powerful shot that was well saved one-handed by Vaclik in the 26th minute.

But Jordan Pickford made an even better save soon afterwards when Tomas Holes hit a fierce shot from 25 yards, only to see the England keeper dive full-length to tip the ball away. The Czech Republic were enjoying a good spell in the second quarter of the game, moving the ball quickly, and should have equalised in the 38th minute when the ball dropped to Tomas Soucek 15 yards from goal. But the West Ham midfielder missed by a whisker, and moments later Kane was denied by Vaclik again from long range.

Southgate decided to make a significant change at half-time, sending on Jordan Henderson for Declan Rice to steady the ship, although the Liverpool captain, back after a long injury, looked a little off the pace. By the midway point in the second half, Southgate made more changes, replacing Sterling, who had been ineffective apart from his goal, with Marcus Rashford, and sending on teenage Jude Bellingham for Grealish, who has struggled to last 90 minutes since his own injury problems earlier this year.

The game had hit the doldrums at this stage, with neither side creating clear openings, and the biggest roar from England supporters came when the big screens flashed up the news that Scotland were losing to Croatia.

That roar increased when Croatia scored again, but there was little prospect of much else to cheer from England, who seemed to have struck a non-aggression pact with the Czechs. Patrick Schick, who'd scored nine goals in his previous 12 internationals, three of them in the Czechs' opening two games, barely registered a touch and was withdrawn long before the end. His replacement Tomas Pekhart put one long-range shot wastefully wide but otherwise Pickford was rarely called into action after half-time.

Vaclik had little more to do and when Henderson did roll the ball past him in the closing stages, it was ruled out for offside. By then Saka had been replaced by Jadon Sancho, both players getting a rousing reception from the Wembley crowd, and the Arsenal youngster deservedly won the man of the match award.

CZECH REPUBLIC (4-2-3-1): Vaclik 7; Coufal 6, Celustka 7, Kalas 6, Boril 6; Holes 6 (Vydra 84), Soucek 6; Masopust 6 (Hlozek 64), Darida 6 (Kral 64), Jankto 6 (Sevcik 46); Schick 5. 

ENGLAND (4-2-3-1): Pickford 7; Walker 6, Stones 7, Maguire 8, Shaw 7; Rice 6 (Henderson 46), Phillips 7; Saka 8 (Sancho 84), Grealish 8 (Bellingham 66), Sterling 7 (Rashford 66); Kane 7.

Referee: Artur Dias (Portugal).

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