Raheem Sterling ignited England’s Euro 2020 campaign as the Manchester City forward’s clinical finish sealed a 1-0 win against Croatia in their Group D opener on Sunday.
Gareth Southgate’s side were struggling to break down Croatia until Sterling struck in the second half at sun-baked Wembley.
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The 26-year-old’s first goal at a major tournament — in his 13th game — was the perfect riposte to critics who questioned Southgate’s decision to select him instead of Jack Grealish.
Sterling has endured a chequered relationship with England fans after being hounded following his tame performances at Euro 2016.
He also struggled to hold down a place with Premier League champions City this term, culminating in his lacklustre display in their Champions League final defeat against Chelsea.
But, days after he was given an MBE in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for his anti-racism campaigning, Sterling enjoyed a perfectly-timed moment of redemption.
In a rematch of the 2018 World Cup semi-final won by Croatia, England were hampered by a lack of cutting edge until Sterling came to the rescue.
Sterling’s winner eased the tension at Wembley and got fans bellowing ‘Football’s coming home’ in the hope England can emulate their run to the semi-finals when they hosted Euro 96, and maybe even win a major tournament for the first time since the 1966 World Cup.
In truth, this was a far from convincing performance, but Southgate will take heart from the way his team kept their nerve on a pressure-packed occasion.
England host neighbours Scotland in their second Group D match on Friday before taking on the Czech Republic in their final game of the first stage on June 22.
After England were booed for taking the knee in support of the Black Lives Matter movement before their friendlies against Austria and Romania in Middlesbrough, there were fears fans at Wembley would turn on the team as well.
There were a smattering of boos from sections of the 22,500 crowd, but the majority cheered the gesture this time. (AFP)