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England loosen shackles in dress rehearsal for knockout stages

·3-min read
Raheem Sterling of England celebrates with Jack Grealish (Getty)
Raheem Sterling of England celebrates with Jack Grealish (Getty)

The stage might have been a near-dead rubber. The changes of costume might have been enforced by medical protocol. But, for the first time at Euro 2020, England at least attempted to ditch their shackles, swapped apprehension for a little risk, and reaped the rewards in a fine dress rehearsal for the knockout stages.

The overriding frustration of their opening two matches had always been the failure to thrill. The lottery of emotions - the excitement, anxiety and inevitable disappointment - stamped by every international tournament that were instead subdued by Gareth Southgate’s tight tactical constraints. The full-backs sat deep. The midfielders dared not break the line. And as the channels froze around him, Harry Kane curdled into a stagnant force. After all, if our hopes are to be extinguished, better to crash and burn than go out with a whimper.

And so while this match was effectively only a battle to remain at Wembley in the last 16, it was also a chance to shake out the tension. Tournament bubbles can be like pressure cookers. This was the time to let loose, galvanise hope, and renew faith in an old, unlikely dream. It did not take long, either. Almost immediately from kick-off, England barrelled forwards without inhibition, a series of bright sparks illuminating where there had previously been damp squibs - and a yearning for Jack Grealish.

The sense of freedom began with Luke Shaw, keeping his place ahead of Kieran Tripper. It was his barrelling run and clipped through ball that set Sterling clear, only for his lofted shot to strike the outside of the post. On previous nights, when the nerves have weighed heavily, that spurned chance might have been taken for a lurking omen. Instead, a tone had already been set, and that early flourish always felt like a prelude.

The goal duly followed almost immediately and embodied the vein of fun England had rediscovered. A sense of frustration had been directed at Southgate after Bukayo Saka was selected ahead of Jadon Sancho, but the head coach has often proved himself stubborn in the face of public opinion. Here, he was clearly vindicated, too, with Saka’s willing and energy England’s most effective weapon. A driving run through midfield sending the Czech Republic into panic, with the ball eventually falling to Grealish on the left, from where he picked out Sterling at the far post.

The expectations placed on Grealish have drifted into almost Messiah-like levels of hysteria in recent days. He might not be England’s saviour and rebel all at once, but he proved once again that he is hardly one to shrink from the spotlight. His slight movements deceived defenders and drew fouls, and an assist was well-deserved. Withdrawn midway through the second half, the burning question remains whether he has done enough to sway a manager not quite so enamoured as the rest of the nation.

And so England had confidence, a spring in their step, and Harry Maguire adding significant ballast in central defence. There were plenty of other positives to take, too, in a game that can breathe life and relief into Southgate’s squad as Jordan Henderson completed 45 minutes. But in the second half, as reality pierced the positivity, as the minutes wore into uncertain territory, the old haunts of fate flickered. After indulging an attacking philosophy, England fell a little back into their shell as Tomas Soucek’s impression of a battering ram and a few set-pieces did inevitably cause small waves of panic. In truth, England were rarely troubled.

It was a gamble Southgate could afford and his players executed clinically. It might not have been free-flowing chaos, but it was something close to a perfect run-through: first place secured and another clean sheet, capped by several inspiring cameos. There will be no illusions over what the knockout stages hold and England may well sink back into that stiffer waistcoat of caution. For now, though, there can be few complaints. This was a mission accomplished and with at least a little more style.

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