After four months in hibernation international football returned this week with the start of European Championship qualifying. England’s campaign started at Wembley against the Czech Republic. The Czechs arrived with a young side short of the star names of their glorious past but believing they could cause an upset by targeting supposed weak link Harry Maguire.
England’s squad selection was dominated by the roll call of injured absentees: Trent Alexander-Arnold, John Stones, Joe Gomez, Luke Shaw, Harry Winks, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Fabian Delph and finally on game day Marcus Rashford.
One new addition to the ranks was the controversial arrival of former Republic of Ireland international Declan Rice. In the build up to the game an old social media post emerged in which Rice seemingly made a pro IRA comment. Rice apologised for the post made back in 2015 and Gareth Southgate backed him. To draw a line under this, it should Be remembered Rice was 15 years old when he made the post ahead of an Ireland youth game, mercifully for me social media didn’t exist when I was 15 and I can only guess at the kind of guff I’d have posted given the chance, it’s fair to say that applies to most people, Rice has moved on and so have England.
Southgate kept faith with his 4-3-3 formation and the much changed side saw Jordan Pickford retained in-goal despite a patchy season at Everton alongside clubmate Michael Keane and regular defensive trio Kyle Walker, Ben Chilwell and Maguire. In midfield Jordan Henderson returned despite an erratic run at Liverpool alongside Tottenham duo Eric Dier and Dele Alli. In attack Jadon Sancho made his first competitive start down the right in place of Rashford with Harry Kane and Raheem Sterling retained.
England started slowly and the Czech’s were content to hold their shape and play for a draw. Dier went down injured on 17 minutes and was replaced by Ross Barkley and Barkley’s introduction proved a catalyst for England to move into high gear. England’s passing became faster and sharper with Barkley’s providing additional thrust from midfield. Just 7 minutes later England took the lead as Kane dropped deep and angled a perfect pass into the path of Sancho who delivered a perfect low cross for Sterling to slide home to complete a slick 25 pass move. The Czech’s had no answer and England began to dominate in search of a second goal, with Sancho constantly teasing left back Filip Novak with his pace and trickery.
Just as it seemed the Czech’s had weathered the storm England grabbed a second goal in first half stoppage time. Sterling burst into the box and was brought down by two defenders, gifting England a penalty which Kane promptly dispatched for 2-0.
England began the second half in sluggish mood and the Czech’s who’d brought on Burnley’s Matej Vydra tested Pickford with a couple of set pieces, meanwhile star striker Patrik Schick started to threaten England’s goal. However as the Czech’s tried to get forward England’s pace was always likely to catch them out and on 62 minutes Sterling put the game to bed with a fine swiveled movement and shot for 3-0.
Again a midfield substitution changed the dynamic of England’s play as Rice came on after 63 minutes. The West Ham midfielder’s introduction enabled Henderson to play further forward whilst Rice neutralised the threat of Vydra. Within minutes the Czech’s were in disarray as Sterling broke down the left and fired a vicious shot that deflected off defender Ondrej Celustka and the boy who grew up riding his BMX around the Wembley building site was now its hat-rick hero.
Southgate quickly withdrew Sterling with an eye on Monday night’s game in Montenegro and brought on Chelsea youngster Callum Hudson-Odoi. It offered little respite for the visitors with England now rampant mood and Hudson-Odoi’s pace and willingness to run at defenders causing new problems. And it was Hudson-Odoi who struck the final blow as he ran at the Czech defence and unleashed a fierce drive that Jiri Pavlenka could only parry into the path of Tomas Kalas who deflected the ball into his own net for 5-0 and a statement of intent was hammered out to the rest of the Group A.
England were brilliant and it seems unlikely any of this qualifying group can challenge them at home. The away matches which begin with a trip to Montenegro on Monday will provide a sterner test, but on this form everyone else is playing for the second qualifying spot. Sterling was inevitably man of the match as he took his goal scoring run to 5 in 3 internationals as Southgate remarked the striker has come full circle. Much the same could be said of Southgate and his entire side, just 18 months on from being booed off at Wembley, England are playing fast paced dynamic football and the stock of the Three Lions has rarely been higher. England have never won in Montenegro, but Monday night seems a good time to start.