It was a day of firsts for England, who avenged a World Cup semifinal loss three years ago to the very same Croatia side they defeated 1-0 on Sunday in the Group D opener of Euro 2020 from Wembley Stadium.
Raheem Sterling’s 57th-minute winner was the first time the 26-year-old veteran forward scored at a major tournament for England — who won their first game at the prestigious European Championships for the first time in 10 tries.
The three points for the Three Lions, ranked No. 4 in the FIFA world rankings, was a massive first step to get out of Group D and into the knockout stage as No. 14 Croatia was considered their toughest test in the foursome — the Czech Republic and Scotland expected to be much looser tests.
It was the bright young England squad that was an unrelenting force for the majority of the match.
They nearly took the lead in the sixth minute through the play of two Manchester City teammates. Sterling sliced down the middle of the Croatia defense before feeding Phil Foden, who cut in on his left foot just inside the box and curled a shot off the post.
Over the first half-hour of the match, roughly 40% of play was spent in Croatia’s third of the field with no pay-off on the scoreboard.
It was a similar start compared to the 2018 World Cup semifinals in which England dominated the first half — though they plucked a goal — before Croatia came back with a strong second half and punched their ticket to the final.
This time England’s dominating spell only lasted that half-hour as Croatia slowly began to find their legs and back the hosts off their high press.
But Sterling’s bright half continued when he flagged down a long ball on the break that had to be batted down by the arm of Croatia defender Duje Caleta-Car to stop the golden England chance. But it awarded the Three Lions with a free kick right at the edge of the Croatia box with Kieran Trippier — the Atletico Madrid man who struck home a free kick in the first half of the World Cup semifinals — looming over it. This time, his attempt never made it past the Croatia wall as another England chance fell by the wayside. ‘
While England looked sluggish to start the second half with lackadaisical passing around the back and perimeter, Kalvin Phillips was played through by Kyle Walker in a sudden showing of malice.
After holding off a pair of defenders, he found a streaking Sterling marauding into the Croatia box, who managed to finish through a couple of deflections to put England ahead in the 57th minute.
Four minutes later, Mason Mount was played down the left side and sent a teasing ball to the opposite side of the Croatia box. Tottenham superstar Harry Kane got a foot on the ball, but couldn’t control it as he skied it over the bar.
That wasn’t the worst part of the play, though, as Kane fell and slid into the post — a hard impact looking as though it hurt his shoulder. While he was down for a moment, he found a way to continue.
Sterling had a golden chance for a second in the 75th minute off a free kick that saw the initial ball scurried away, but the bouncing ball came right into the path of Sterling near the edge of the box. His volley effort though was poor as it rose well over the bar.
A bit of history was made in the 82nd minute as England tried to see Croatia out, swapping Kane for 17-year-old Jude Bellingham — who plays his club soccer at Borussia Dortmund in Germany — becoming the youngest player ever to appear at the European Championships.