England progressed to the European Championship knockout phase as group winners thanks to Raheem Sterling’s early header in a 1-0 victory against the Czech Republic.
Having kicked off Group D by beating World Cup semi-final foes Croatia and then been booed off following the goalless draw with rivals Scotland, Gareth Southgate’s already-qualified side put in a controlled display on Tuesday.
Sterling headed home fan favourite Jack Grealish’s cross to seal a narrow win against the Czechs at Wembley, where England will return next Tuesday for a last-16 tie against France, Germany, Portugal or Hungary.
Facing the runners-up in the so-called group of death looks a tough ask but there is a lot to be said for home comforts – plus facing underdogs at the Euros does not always go well, such as Iceland five years ago.
There remains plenty for Southgate’s men to improve on after Tuesday’s hard-fought victory, but England reacted well to a disrupted build-up that saw Mason Mount and Ben Chilwell forced into isolation.
The fallout to their interaction with Scotland’s Billy Gilmour, who tested positive for Covid-19, will rumble on, but Mount’s replacement Grealish impressed – as did fellow tournament full debutant Bukayo Saka.
The fearless pair were involved in the winning goal under the arch, where Sterling bounced back from hitting a post in the opening stages to head home Grealish’s 12th-minute cross.
There were some nervy moments when the Czechs settled and Harry Kane’s wait for his first Euros goal continues, but England professionally saw out a forgettable second half to wrap up qualification without conceding.
England’s final Group D match started like the previous two as a Manchester City player hit the woodwork.
Sterling was sent scampering behind the Czech backline by a smart Luke Shaw pass, getting to the ball before Tomas Vaclik and leaving the goalkeeper watching helplessly as the shot bounced back off the far post.
John Stones and Kane had efforts during a bright opening that brought about a 12th-minute opener and vindication for those calling for Grealish’s inclusion.
Livewire Saka started the move in his own half that led to him sending over a cross, with the Aston Villa playmaker eventually jinking into space to send a perfect clipped ball to the far post for Sterling to head home.
“It’s coming home” echoed around Wembley, where a firm stop by Vaclik denied Kane having been found superbly by Harry Maguire on his return to action from six weeks out with an ankle complaint.
But just like the other group games, England dropped off midway through the opening period and Jordan Pickford did well to stop Tomas Holes’ impressive 30-yard drive nestling in the top left-hand corner.
The Czechs were making life uncomfortable and impressive West Ham midfielder Tomas Soucek went agonisingly close when swinging a strike just wide.
England eventually settled as Grealish and Saka continued to prove exciting outlets, with Shaw seeing a cross deflect into the side-netting and Kane seeing a fizzing strike saved before offside was called.
Jordan Henderson replaced Declan Rice at the break, with the experienced vice-captain helping England stay in control without exerting themselves too much.
Attacks at either end were stopped by smart defending or poor final decisions, with Southgate turning to substitutes Marcus Rashford and Jude Bellingham in a bid to change the dynamics of the second half.
The decision to take off Grealish was met by a smattering of jeers during a period when Maguire saw penalty claims ignored.
Tyrone Mings and Jadon Sancho came on in front of a flat Wembley crowd, with Tomas Pekhart striking just wide from the edge of the box following a hashed Pickford clearance.
Substitute Henderson thought he had scored his first international goal late on, only for the offside flag to deny him towards the end of an underwhelming match that keeps hopes of an exciting summer alive.