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The initial target has been achieved – A bigger test will undoubtedly follow – But what more have we learned about England – Gareth Southgate and the mood of the nation?
To be honest, as with most tournaments involving England, it has been a little like Groundhog Day. Group stage football, in general, has been laboured, cautious and sometimes flat and yet England appears to be the only team fiercely criticised.
Sure, it’s not always been stimulating – Southgate has proverbially done exactly what it says on the tin – qualified without burnout – an important factor with a group of players that have largely played back-to-back Premier League campaigns with very little in the way of a break due to the 2019/20 season suspension in the early weeks of lockdown.
The squad has been utilised, much of the group have been handed a taster for the tournament and above all, England are through having won the group.
Raheem Sterling’s twelfth-minute header secured England’s victory over the Czech Republic, following up his decisive strike against the Croatian’s in the opening fixture. Indeed, the Manchester City wingers’ recent goal-per-game ratio for his country has been impressive and yet a quick scan through social media once again sees the 26-year-old the main target of criticism.
Southgate has kept faith in his man – The majority amongst the 22,500 Wembley crowd provided an ovation following his 67th-minute substitution, and yet ‘Dave’ – whose main contribution to the beautiful game has been to stand on the sideline for the Dog & Duck and cut up the half-time oranges – shouts at the telly, takes to his keyboard and insists that he knows best. Sterling isn’t the first England player to suffer in this way and he won’t be the last. Of course, everyone is entitled to an opinion… unless it’s utter rubbish! There, I’ve said it – The mind boggles?
I’ll accept some criticism is justified, but completely blown out of proportion. England was far from fluent or for that matter at their best against Scotland. But come on, did anyone expect our greatest rivals to simply roll over? Throughout history, there has been the odd occasion where England versus Scotland has thrown up a big win one way or another. But how often? And even in recent times, the Scots have avoided defeat in three of their last six meetings with the Auld Enemy. A thumping was never going to materialise. A resolute, determined and passionate Scotland was. Why do some people never get that?
So what is there we can all largely agree on? Defensively, England appears sound. All three of our group opponents have had their moments, but clean sheets at any level of football are a precious commodity, particularly when you are finding goals difficult to come by. Tyrone Mings has impressed me during these early weeks of the tournament, as did Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish, providing a little more attacking intent against the Czechs.
Harry Kane still appears somewhat lost. I’m not sure how much of that is due to mental and physical fatigue or whether his general fitness is questionable. Needless to say, it’s a worry for England and one way or another needs to be addressed.
Anyway, what’s next? Germany, France, Portugal or Hungary in front of a larger Wembley audience.
I found it rather strange that some people were calling on England to finish second in the group and potentially swerve one of the favourites. There are no guarantees in one-off matches, particularly if you are playing away from home.
Sure, of the quartet in question, it could be argued that England would start as underdogs against three of them. But hey, what an opportunity to put down a marker and send one of them packing relatively early. If you are going to win a major competition of this type, at some point or another you will have to deliver a killer blow to one of the top teams. If England isn’t up to it, Dave (remember him) will let Southgate the players and the whole of social media know about it. If the boot is on the other foot, collectively, England might – for now – win him and his like over.
To sum up, none of us can do anything about it once the players cross the white line. Not you, me and to some extent, even Southgate. But the fact of the matter is that England are through to the knockout stage and have as good a chance as any Three Lions squad since 1966 of achieving something which might keep us taking for the next 55-years.
Czech Republic: Vaclik; Coufal, Celustka, Kalas, Boril; Soucek, Holes (Vydra 84′), Masopust (Hlozek 64′), Darida (Kral 64′), Jankto (Sevcik46′); Schick (Pekhart 75′) Subs not used: Koubek, Mateju, Brabec, Mandous, Krmencik, Kaderabek, Barak
England: Pickford; Walker, Stones (Mings 79′), Maguire, Shaw; Rice (Henderson 46′), Phillips; Saka (Sancho 84′), Grealish (Bellingham 68′), Sterling (Rashford 67′); Kane Subs not used: Ramsdale, Johnstone, Trippier, Coady, Calvert-Lewin, White, James
Referee: Artur Manuel Soares Dias