England’s forward Raheem Sterling (R) scores the opening goal during the UEFA EURO 2020 Group D football match between Czech Republic and England at Wembley Stadium in London on June 22, 2021. NEIL HALL / POOL / AFP
England found an attacking spark to beat the Czech Republic 1-0 at Wembley on Tuesday and clinch top spot in Group D at Euro 2020.
Raheem Sterling, who kept his place alongside Harry Kane in a rejigged attack, settled fans’ nerves with an early headed goal, which ultimately proved decisive.
England boss Gareth Southgate made four changes to the side that produced an insipid display in the 0-0 draw against Scotland, handing Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka their first starts of the tournament.
Chelsea midfielder Mason Mount was unavailable as he was isolating due to coronavirus protocols while Southgate opted to leave Phil Foden out to prevent the risk of a suspension.
Manchester United defender Harry Maguire made his first appearance of Euro 2020 alongside John Stones in central defence.
Both teams had already qualified for the last 16, but top spot in the group was on the line, and with it the dubious privilege of a potential clash against world champions France, holders Portugal or Germany.
The home side started brightly in the evening sunshine and Sterling went agonisingly close in just the second minute but could only watch as his deft chip over the goalkeeper come back off the post after he collected a raking pass from Luke Shaw.
As chants of “Football’s Coming Home” rang around the stadium, captain Kane — heavily criticised for his toothless performances in the tournament so far — shot from distance and Grealish let fly.
England broke the deadlock in the 12th minute, when Grealish, on the left side of the penalty area, lifted the ball to the back post, where Sterling headed in for his second goal of Euro 2020.
There was a further cheer among the 22,500 fans when it was flashed up on the stadium screens that Scotland were losing 1-0 to Croatia in Glasgow.
Grealish and Saka were inventive and direct on either side of Kane, showing a willingness to run at their opponents and Kane went close midway through the first half, forcing a fine left-handed save from Tomas Vaclik and thumping the ground in frustration
But the Czechs carried a threat of their own on their forays forward, growing in menace as the half wore on.
Tomas Holes forced a flying save from England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford just before the half-hour and Tomas Soucek fired wide of the left post.
Liverpool midfielder Jordan Henderson replaced Declan Rice at half-time and the Czechs made their own change, bringing on Petr Sevcik for Jakub Jankto.
The sides were evenly matched in the opening minutes of the second half, with the reduced crowd making an impressive noise in the cavernous stadium.
Both sides made further changes as the match wore on.
Sterling and Grealish were replaced by Marcus Rashford and teenager Jude Bellingham with a quarter of the match to go among a raft of substitutions by either side.
There was a huge cheer when it was announced that Scotland were now trailing 3-1 to Croatia as the game at Wembley lost some of its intensity.
Henderson briefly thought he had scored his first England goal late on but the goal was ruled out for offside.
England finished top of Group D with seven points while Croatia are second with four points. The Czech Republic will join them in the last 16 as one of best third-placed teams.