England’s first Euro 2020 mission was accomplished as they beat the Czech Republic to top Group D and start unbeaten in three games without conceding a goal.
It means they stay at Wembley for their last-16 meeting, which could be against World Cup holders France, old adversaries Germany or current European champions Portugal.
As far as England are concerned, football is staying at home for now – whether it comes home permanently is another matter.
If it is to do so, manager Gareth Southgate must find another gear from his players rather than the occasionally stodgy fare produced in this group stage.
First things first. England would have settled for this outcome before their opener against Croatia in baking Wembley heat.https://emp.bbc.com/emp/SMPj/2.43.3/iframe.htmlEuro 2020 – Czech Republic 0-1 England: ‘Outstanding’ Bukayo Saka can’t be dropped – Micah Richards
They might have preferred the three games – beating their conquerors from the 2018 World Cup semi-final, drawing with Scotland or getting this win against the Czechs – to be more pleasing on the eye rather than characterised by long periods of attrition.
For now, though, this will do – but the realists in the England camp will know their next opponents will be a significant upgrade on anything they have faced so far and Southgate’s players must respond accordingly.ADVERTISEMENT
England may not have produced a statement performance in the manner of Germany, Italy and Belgium, or hinted at greater menace to come like France, but they are exactly where they want to be and Southgate will be satisfied with that.
It has been nowhere near perfect, but it is hardly a cause for doom and gloom either.
Let’s start with the positives – and despite the reservations about England’s mixed efforts in the group phase there are positives to go at.
Three clean sheets is impressive, and Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford continued his excellent form of recent months with a crucial diving save from Tomas Holas in the first half here.
The sight of Manchester United captain Harry Maguire coming through 90 minutes unscathed after being out since early May with ankle ligament damage will have been a relief to Southgate.
When the going gets tough – as it will against any of England’s probable last-16 opponents – England will require experience and leadership. Maguire provides both as well as the extra dimension of distribution and command that almost created a first goal of Euro 2020 for captain Harry Kane.
Southgate has been accused of conservatism in these opening games, as he has used more defensively minded pivots in Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips.
Here, robbed of Chelsea’s Mason Mount as he self-isolates after coming into close contact with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour, who tested positive for Covid-19 after the second group game, Southgate gave a long-awaited start to Jack Grealish and also brought in Arsenal teenager Bukayo Saka.
They were creators-in-chief when the going was good in a lively first 45 minutes.
It was a selection that created discontent among the followers – and there are many of them judging by the roars when he came on – of Borussia Dortmund’s Jadon Sancho, who was left on the bench, but both Grealish and Saka did themselves the power of good.
The pair have given Southgate food for thought as he seeks to perfect that three-man formula behind Kane, with Mount potentially a doubt for the last 16 and Manchester City’s Phil Foden in the mix.
Options can appear in tournaments and Southgate now has two more, as proved by Grealish and Saka.
It is a puzzle Southgate must solve, albeit a positive one. He will surely not switch from using two midfield anchors now – with Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson also getting 45 minutes as replacement for Rice – but he still has expansive players to give England a cutting edge.
There is plenty of talent in there and Southgate must get that one right to have a chance of overcoming one of three very powerful opponents.
And then there are the doubts that still surround this England team and cast a cloud over their hopes.
Kane is still struggling for that elusive first goal of the tournament and England will need their world-class striker to fire in a manner that will instantly elevate their level of threat. Southgate will hope its arrival is imminent.
He was tireless here, thinking he had broken his tournament duck in the first half with a neat turn and shot in the area, only to be thwarted by the outstretched hand of Czech keeper Tomas Vaclik.
In common with England’s performance, Kane became more subdued as the game went on and the way they have been unable to maintain a bright start in games is something Southgate will be pondering.
England are struggling to finish teams off, or even trouble them in the case of Scotland, with ambition and confidence occasionally seeming to fade, turning what started as a bright and breezy showing into a slog, if not exactly a nervous one, in the second half at Wembley.
Southgate will study the names of potential opponents in the last 16 and know there can be no lessening of intensity, no periods when they seem gripped by caution, no times when initiative is handed to teams far more talented and dangerous than Croatia, Scotland and the Czech Republic.
All this will be noted by Southgate and England, as Euro 2020 gets even more serious and the stakes get even higher.
The good news is he can consider these questions after a healthy return of seven points from three group games and a place in the last 16 achieved with something to spare.