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.
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.
“I always said if I played at Wembley at a major tournament I had to score. It’s great to finally do that,” said Sterling, who grew up close to the national stadium.
“There’s a lot of different reasons why I haven’t scored for my club and it’s totally irrelevant now. I’m here with England and I’m enjoying my football.
“Have I justified my selection? I’m trying. I’ve focused on myself and tried to come into the tournament with a clear head.”
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.
“I’m so pleased for Raheem. He was dangerous all game. His goalscoring record suggests we should have faith in him and I think he was motivated to show that,” Southgate said.
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.
“It’s lovely to have given our fans and our country a really enjoyable afternoon. The players dealt with the big occasion really well,” Southgate said.
Croatia boss Zlatko Dalic added: “We have lots of optimism. We are looking forward to our next games and we can still reach our objective of moving into the next round.”
England hold firm
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.
Southgate’s surprise decision to select Kalvin Phillips proved an inspired move as, along with Sterling, the Leeds midfielder was England’s most accomplished performer.
Manchester City forward Phil Foden, his hair bleached blond, has drawn comparisons with England legend Paul Gascoigne, who sported the same eye-catching hair cut during Euro 96.
Foden was inches away from giving England the perfect start in the sixth minute with the kind of magic that made Gascoigne so beloved.
Collecting Sterling’s pass on the edge of the area, Foden worked space to curl his left-footed shot off the far post.
But Southgate’s men showed signs of running out of ideas after their early flurry failed to yield a goal.
Fans chanted for the introduction of Aston Villa playmaker Grealish after a slow start to the second half.
But Sterling quelled the mounting anxiety as England struck in the 57th minute.
Phillips was the catalyst as he burst forward past two Croatians and slipped a deft pass behind the defensive line.
Sterling arrived just ahead of his lunging marker and slotted a low shot past Dominik Livakovic from 10 yards.
In the absence of the injured Harry Maguire, Tyrone Mings and John Stones were up to the task as England’s centre-backs held firm to clinch a victory in their opening European Championship game for the first time.