England clinch their first victory against Croatia in the EURO 2020 as Raheem Sterling provides the catharsis

June 14, 2021

The Wembley Stadium stood witness to one of those moments in the English football history that the English fans near, far and wide made their message loud and clear that Football is coming home. Undoubtedly this was by far England’s first positive start to a European Championship campaign and not because of the win but because of being triumphant against an opponent like Croatia after their semi-final defeat by Luka Modric’s side in the 2018 World Cup.

Gareth Southgate can agree that this was one of the toughest fixtures that they would have to face in the group stages and provided they did not fail to serve the revenge cold. The perks of having a star studed team is for the manager to decide who makes the cut to the line-up and much to everyone’s disappointment of not finding names like Jadon Sancho, Jack Grealish, Ben Chillwell and Luke Shaw in the starting 11 the Three Lions still went in and got the job done. Southgate did not miss the chance of giving Jude Bellingham the youngest player in the EURO’s history to make his international debut at the age of 17 years and 349 days as he replaced captain Harry Kane in the closing minutes of the match.

The defensive formation looked a bit experimental with John Stones and Tyrone Mings playing at the centre back and Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker acting a mere side backs and not overlapping in the attacking third rather Mason Mount dropped in to help Raheem Sterling with the crosses and passes inside the box. Kalvin Phillips was inarguably one of the most outstanding performers on the pitch and what better way to kick-start his international campaign than an assist and set the tone of his arrival. He was hugely praised by his Gaffer later on- “Kalvin is a player who is so understated. He has had a fantastic start to his international career”. When asked about the role of Kalvin Phillips Southgate commented- “We are asking him to play a slightly more advanced position than with his club but he has the technique to do that. It gives us solidity in midfield and allows us to effectively play four attacking players with Mason”.

Kalvin Phillips in action

Zlatko Dalic knew exactly beforehand that what kind of strategy he is going to face and commented before the match-“We will be looking for a victory. We can’t just defend and look for the draw. We need to go for the win”. Croatia’s formation was exactly as anyone could have predicted, Rebić was up front with support from wingers Perišić and Kramarić. Modrić and Kovačić orchestrate the play from the centre of midfield but special mention needs to be made here for 19 year old defender Josko Gvardiol whose constant threat making capabilities in the left flank did shake up the English defense quite frequently and Athletico Madrid defender Vrsaljko did quite well in putting up crosses and throw ins inside the British defensive third from the right hand side.

Zlatco Dalic at the side line giving instructions

The hosts kicked off the encounter with the intention of stretching the Croatian defense and using skipper Harry Kane as a decoy for their forward line as Mason Mount and Kalvin Phillips started putting the crosses inside the corridor of uncertainty. Raheem Sterling fighting with all his might from the left and Phil Foden getting the chance to shoot but eventually hitting the far post was the story for first quarter of the match. Declan Rice playing inside deep defense and sending the ball back to Tyrone Mings and John Stones whenever he saw a threat from the Croatian attack thus slowing the tempo down for couple of minutes till putting long crosses towards the attacking line. When we watch a game we generally glue our eyes to the forward line in hope of seeing our team score a goal but we forget the true orchestrators of the symphony and according to my point of view players like Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips, Mason Mount and the entire defense line stood their ground played their part brilliantly and were the main motivators for the players up front.

The first half ended quite to the disappointment for England as their dominance was tricked and played for like chess by the Croatian tacticians gaining a foothold onto the encounter with Perisic’s missed chance. Jordan Pickford was not that much tested throughout the afternoon as he made some quite easy catches at the heart of the six yard box and did not wait for his defenders to send the ball to the Row Z (Imagined back row of seating in a stadium where rudimentary clearances and wayward shots are pictured to have landed).

The events turned around for the home side when at the 57th minute Kalvin Phillips weaved in a defense splitting through ball from the right which found Raheem Sterling lurking in between Livakovic and Vrsaljko as he squirmed the ball in from under Livakovic’s outstretched arm and into the net.

Sterling’s goal

At around the 66th minute Ante Rebic dragged the ball wide and the substitute Mario Pasalic thrashed it high at the very end and that was what Croatia’s threat was all about. It was quite evident from yesterday’s performance by Croatia that they are not as dangerous as they were back in 2018 and the “unfair advantage” that their skipper Luka Modric talked about in his pre-match comments can in no way justify the downfall of their level of performance in such an International stage as this.

Kieran Trippier and Mason Mount missing the chance of scoring from a free kick right at the edge of the penalty area would have been the headline if Raheem Sterling would not have broken the deadlock but as it says All’s well that ends well. As far as final conclusion of a match is concerned we can say that there is no comment on point other than the English coaches final match comments-“The majority of the game we were in control and didn’t give Croatia many opportunities and we looked dangerous. The key was to get pressure on Croatia’s midfield players and we managed to do that. That limited some of the supply and the defenders dealt with the longer balls well and read the game well. It was a day when everybody who got onto the pitch performed well and that was set up by the whole group. He added- “The players dealt with the big occasion really well. Right from the start, in incredible heat, they played well and settled early in the game.”

Croatia have to buckle up and regroup if they want to maintain their erstwhile reputation of being a dangerous and offensive team with brilliant organizing capabilities and as for the Lions are concerned their style of play and approach towards a game has made them title favorites judging on this fiery start of their campaign. On speaking from a football fans point of view I would love to see more of Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sanxho, Jack Grealish, Ben Chillwell and Jude Bellingham getting more minutes in the pitch.

Team News:

England (4-2-3-1): Pickford; Walker, Stones, Mings, Trippier; Phillips, Rice; Foden, Mount, Sterling; Kane.
Substitutes: D Henderson, Johnstone, Shaw, Grealish, J Henderson, Rashford, Coady, Calvert-Lewin, White, James, Saka, Bellingham.

Croatia (4-3-3) Livakovic; Vrsaljko, Caleta-Car, Vida, Gvardiol; Modric, Brozovic, Kovacic; Kramaric, Rebic, Perisic.
Substitutes: Kalinic, Sluga, Brekalo, Vlasic, Budimir, Pasalic, Skoric, Badelj, Petkovic, Juranovic, Bradaric, Ivanusec.

Referee Daniele Orsato (Italy)

Star of the Match: Raheem Sterling

Raheem Sterling with the Star of the Match award