Czech Republic 0 — England 1
Will England’s victory against the Czech Republic prove to be pyrrhic?
The team’s 1-0 win on Tuesday night secured top position in their group at the Euro 2020 tournament. But that achievement comes with a prize of suspect value. In the next round, they face, most likely, one of France, Portugal or Germany.
That means a tie that pits England against the current football world champions, the current European champions or a side they have not beaten in a knockout match in a major tournament in 55 years. A Herculean task awaits whatever the results of Wednesday’s games between their prospective opponents.
Manager Gareth Southgate extolled one clear positive from the result: England will play the next game in front of a partisan crowd at Wembley next Tuesday afternoon.
“It’s great to have more supporters,” he said. “Who knows whether it’ll be a good draw or not, but we wanted to win the group, to stay at Wembley, and we’ll wait and see who we’ll play tomorrow.”
While England face a difficult task to contain star players like France’s Kylian Mbappé, Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo or Germany’s Toni Kroos, they have prepared by accumulating a strong record. They are unbeaten in the competition so far and have conceded no goals. Few of their predecessors have made such short work of any tournament’s group stages.
“Different players are needed for different matches,” said England’s goalscorer Raheem Sterling. “If you don’t concede goals, you win football matches. We just need to score at the other end.”
Ahead of the game on Tuesday, Southgate announced a much-shuffled line-up. Some of those changes were forced. Two England players, Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell, were forced into self-isolation after coming into “close contact” with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour, who tested positive for Covid-19 following the match between the teams played last Friday.
The inclusion of Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish proved instrumental in England’s only goal. In the 11th minute, the Czech defence was unlocked by a darting run from Saka and a deft cross from Grealish. Sterling headed in his second goal of the tournament from close range
England could themselves have conceded in the first half, though. A long-range shot by Czech defender Tomáš Holeš needed to be palmed away by England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford. Later, midfielder Tomáš Souček missed the target from far closer range.
But the second half drifted into tedium. Perhaps the problem was that the game was devoid of competitive tension. After securing four points from their first two matches, both England and the Czech Republic were already assured of their places in the next round.
Meanwhile, their group rivals Scotland and Croatia played a thrilling match at Hampden Park, Glasgow. Both knew that only a victory would keep them in the competition. Among the biggest cheers at Wembley was the announcement that their northern neighbours had lost 3-1 and were out of the tournament.
Qualifying for the next stage is a feat that should be respected. In an effort to reverse the England team’s poor record in tournaments, the Football Association instituted the “England DNA” programme in 2013. Players of all age groups were instructed to play in a precise, passing style pioneered by the likes of Germany and Spain en route to World Cup victories.
The result is a young England squad full of big-game experience. Many of the players have become regulars for their club sides, thrust into battle in top competitions such as the Premier League and the Uefa Champions League.
But this England team appears to have replaced hopeful “hoofball” — kicking the ball long and upfield — in favour of slow, ponderous passing in front of packed opposition defences. That style has proved more than enough to escape the group. They will need to do more — far more — to get any further.
“It’s tournament football,” said Sterling. “At some point you’re going to have to face the best teams. That’s the whole point, to challenge yourself.”