By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – Gareth Southgate’s hand might have been forced but England’s fans got their wish as Jack Grealish made his first start of Euro 2020 in the 1-0 win over the Czech Republic on Tuesday.
After 12 minutes, when Grealish lofted a sublime cross for Raheem Sterling to head his second goal of the tournament, it appeared the Aston Villa man was ready to light up Wembley.
When he was substituted after 68 minutes, however, the 25-year-old trudged down the touchline looking deflated and the question will be whether he did enough to nail down a place as England head towards a seismic last-16 clash against Germany, France or Portugal at Wembley next Tuesday.
Grealish’s impish trickery and willingness to take a risk has made him very much the people’s choice to ignite an England attack that spluttered in a 1-0 win over Croatia and ground to a halt in a 0-0 stalemate with Scotland.
England managed a feeble three attempts on target in those games but, with a last-16 place assured, their final Group D game against the Czechs offered a chance to take off the handbrake and gather momentum into the knockout phase.
With the unfortunate Mason Mount forced into isolation after coming into contact with Scotland’s COVID-19 positive Billy Gilmour and Phil Foden left out to protect him from picking up a second yellow card in the tournament, Grealish got the nod.
And for 45 minutes England’s new-look attack blossomed.
Sterling lobbed an effort against the post after two minutes while Grealish and 19-year-old Bukayo Saka began to exert a growing influence in wide areas, Grealish with his vision and close control and Saka with his surging runs.
When Saka powered down the right and switched play to Grealish, he manufactured some space to deliver the ball on a plate for Sterling to head past Czech keeper Tomas Vaclik.
The crowd came alive and so did Harry Kane who managed a couple of shots on target after managing none against Croatia and Scotland and being substituted in both games.
For all the first-half verve, what followed after the interval provided more ammunition for those who say manager Gareth Southgate is keeping his team on too tight a leash.
The attacking thrust vanished and England became over-deliberate and apparently content with 1-0 — a result that ensured they topped the group and remain at home for the last 16 but failed to send a statement of intent.
While Mount might still be unavailable for England’s next match, Grealish may not be the man Southgate turns to as the tournament enters the business end, with Saka more likely to keep his place after being named man-of-the-match.
The mood was summed up by former England international Gary Neville, part of the team that reached the semi-finals in 1996.
England’s squad is blessed with attacking talent but ex-defender Neville captured the underwhelming mood.
“England aren’t going to win this tournament by outplaying France, Germany, Portugal and Spain,” he said.
“I don’t think we have the players to do that. We have good players. I genuinely think we will win it in the way we are playing now which is professional, keeping clean sheets, making sure the back is protected by the two in midfield and then creating those individual moments of brilliance.”
England’s two-goal return so far is the lowest ever to win a Euros group. On the positive side, they kept a third straight clean sheet and were not unduly troubled by a Czech side who also reached the last 16 as one of the best third-placed teams.
The big tests are still to come though and, just like in the case of Grealish, the jury is still very much out on whether England have the what it takes to deliver.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris)