London: Raheem Sterling ignited England’s Euro 2020 campaign as the Manchester City forward’s clinical finish sealed a 1-0 win against Croatia in their Group D opener on Sunday.
Gareth Southgate’s side were struggling to break down Croatia until Sterling struck in the second half at sun-baked Wembley.
The 26-year-old’s first goal at a major tournament — in his 13th game — was the perfect riposte to critics who questioned Southgate’s decision to select him instead of Jack Grealish.
Sterling has endured a chequered relationship with England fans after being hounded following his tame performances at Euro 2016.
He also struggled to hold down a place with Premier League champions City this term, culminating in his lacklustre display in their Champions League final defeat against Chelsea.
But, days after he was given an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his anti-racism campaigning, Sterling enjoyed a perfectly-timed moment of redemption.
In a rematch of the 2018 World Cup semi-final won by Croatia, England were hampered by a lack of cutting edge until Sterling came to the rescue.
Sterling’s winner eased the tension at Wembley and got fans bellowing ‘Football’s coming home’ in the hope England can emulate their run to the semi-finals when they hosted Euro 96, and maybe even win a major tournament for the first time since the 1966 World Cup.
In truth, this was a far from convincing performance, but Southgate will take heart from the way his team kept their nerve on a pressure-packed occasion.
England host neighbours Scotland in their second Group D match on Friday before taking on the Czech Republic in their final game of the first stage on June 22.
After England were booed for taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement before their friendlies against Austria and Romania in Middlesbrough, there were fears fans at Wembley would turn on the team as well.
There were a smattering of boos from sections of the 22,500 crowd, but the majority cheered the gesture this time.
It was Southgate’s surprise decision to select Kalvin Phillips that attracted most pre-match attention.
But it proved an inspired move as, along with Sterling, the Leeds midfielder was England’s most accomplished performer.
ENGLAND HOLD FIRM
Manchester City forward Phil Foden, his hair bleached blond, has drawn comparisons with England legend Paul Gascoigne, who sported the same eye-catching hair cut during Euro 96.
Foden was inches away from giving England the perfect start in the sixth minute with the kind of magic that made Gascoigne so beloved.
Collecting Sterling’s pass on the edge of the area, Foden worked space to curl his left-footed shot off the far post.
Phillips was quickly into his stride and forced Dominik Livakovic to make a scrambling save with his strike from the edge of the area.
But Southgate’s men showed signs of running out of ideas after their early flurry failed to yield a goal.
Southgate had picked Foden, Sterling and Mason Mount as the creative forces behind Harry Kane.
With that quartet still struggling to unhinge Croatia into the second half, fans began chanting for the introduction of Aston Villa playmaker Grealish.
But Sterling quelled the mounting anxiety as England struck in the 57th minute.
Phillips was the catalyst as he burst forward past two Croatians and slipped a deft pass behind the defensive line.
Sterling arrived just ahead of his lunging marker and slotted a low shot past Livakovic from 10 yards.
Kane was denied in painful fashion when he crashed into the post after Duje Caleta-Car made a superb block to keep out his close-range effort.
Mount fired a free-kick narrowly over but England went on the defensive in the closing stages.
In the absence of the injured Harry Maguire, Tyrone Mings and John Stones were up to the task as England’s centre-backs held firm to clinch a victory in their opening European Championship game for the first time.