Daniel Taylor at Wembley – The Guardian
Raheem Sterling curls in his second and England’s third goal. Photograph: Ashley Western/MB Media/Getty Images
If the aim, ultimately, is for Gareth Southgate and his players to see whether their Euro 2020 adventure can finish in this stadium – 12 July, 2020, to be precise – this will certainly count as a decent way to begin that process. Five goals, a clean sheet and, perhaps most encouragingly of all, hard evidence that Raheem Sterling is transferring his Manchester City form on to the international stage.
OK, this is still too early to start imagining the possibilities that might open up in a tournament in which the semi-finals and final are all played at the stadium England call home. These are the kind of performances, however, that allow England’s followers to think positively, in particular when the team is suddenly filled with so much attacking variety.
Sterling’s hat-trick means he has now scored five times for England in his last three games. Before that, he had not managed a single goal in his previous 27 appearances and, though it can seem like a trick of the imagination, there was even a debate during the World Cup about whether he should keep his place. His latest performance was just another reminder why Southgate believes it is between Sterling or Virgil van Dijk to win the individual awards as the Premier League’s outstanding player this season.
Not that Sterling was the only player in England’s colours to excel.
England finished the night with Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi, making his debut as a second-half substitute, menacing their opponents from the wings. Harry Kane had a splendid night, including a penalty for the second goal. Declan Rice also made his debut in the second half and when the Mexican wave started it was not one of those occasions when it felt as if the crowd were trying to make their own entertainment. A spectacular own-goal added to the fun and on this evidence England will want more of the same in Montenegro on Monday.
For that one perhaps Southgate will feel emboldened enough to put in Rice and Hudson-Odoi from the start. Rice should certainly feel better for this experience – and not just because of his time on the pitch. As Southgate had predicted, the crowd made it clear that Rice’s now-infamous Instagram post about the IRA, posted when the player was 16, would not be held against him. It all felt very grown-up and, for Rice, no doubt a relief, too.
The only downside for Southgate was the injury to Eric Dier after being clobbered by a bad challenge inside the opening quarter of an hour. Dier had to go off and, funnily enough, it was Southgate’s decision to bring on a more attack-minded player, namely Ross Barkley, and change the formation that led to a dramatic improvement. What began as a 4-2-3-1 system morphed into a more adventurous formation with Jordan Henderson as the only holding midfielder and Barkley and Dele Alli operating just behind a front three, from right to left, of Sancho, Kane and Sterling.
After that England swarmed all over their opponents, playing with the confidence that is now expected of Southgate’s teams and perhaps best epitomised by the goal they created just after the midway point of the first half. Every member of their attacking trio was involved and, in the process, Kane’s contribution was an exquisitely delivered reminder that there is nothing in football quite so beautiful as the perfect through-ball. The killer pass is usually the one for the goal. In this case it came one before, aimed inside the left-back, Filip Novak, and weighted to such perfection that it opened up the entire defence. Sancho’s delivery across the six-yard area was relatively straightforward in comparison. Sterling had sprinted to make himself available at the far post, as he does so often, and managed to get his outstretched boot to the ball.
The most notable statistic was that the goal was the culmination of a 25-pass move in which 10 different players were involved. England’s confidence was flowing. At one stage Sancho could be seen slipping the ball through Novak’s legs. Just to prove the nutmeg was no fluke, Sancho immediately did the same again – this time with a little drag-back – to make his next opponent look silly, too. The crowd loved it and it was no surprise when England’s supremacy led to them doubling the lead with the final kick of the first half.
Sterling’s driving runs into the penalty area were a prominent feature throughout the evening. Alli’s back-heel was trusting his colleague to get there first and, as Sterling tried to dart through a cluster of defenders, he was crunched between Pavel Kaderabek and Tomas Kalas. Jiri Pavlenka, diving to his right, did get a glove to Kane’s penalty but the ball had been struck powerfully enough to get past the Czech goalkeeper.
The Fiver: sign up and get our daily football email.
To be pernickety, there was a sizeable portion of good fortune attached to Sterling’s second-half goals, in particular the one for his hat-trick when he tried his luck with a curler from 25 yards and the ball deflected off Ondrej Celustka to change the trajectory of the shot and wrongfoot the goalkeeper.
There was also a lucky ricochet in the build-up to Sterling’s middle goal but when the ball arrived at his feet it was a lovely piece of skill to swivel away from his marker, taking his shot with his left foot and steering it into the far corner.
Hudson-Odoi replaced Sterling for the final exchanges and fitted in seamlessly, playing as though immune to nerves. It culminated in a tragicomedy of an own-goal from Kalas, getting his feet tangled up and inadvertently scuffing in the rebound after Pavlenka had saved a shot from the Chelsea player. England had five and Sterling left the scene with the match-ball as his souvenir.