Towards the end of a fairly torrid first 15 minutes at Wembley for Croatia, Mateo Kovacic shuffled away from his penalty area with the ball at his feet and boos swelled up.
It was notable that the England supporters had not had cause to goad any significant spell of Croatian possession up until that point. Still, on Kovacic went and found the normally sure-footed Marcelo Brozovic, who duffed the ball out of play.
England gained a measure of revenge for their World Cup semi-final defeat to these opponents three years ago in the 2018-19 Nations League, but the more comparable stakes of this Euro 2020 opener meant talk of a rematch dominated the build-up.
In Moscow, Luka Modric and his midfield cohort deftly cut away England’s early advantage via a thousand passes (well, 594 if we’re being sticklers for the statistics over 120 minutes) to reach the final.
The spectacle of the Three Lions surrendering central areas to a technically proficient team was very familiar, for all that Gareth Southgate’s side threatened a new beginning.
In the interim period, particularly the 12-month delay to the start of this tournament, the England manager has churned through plenty of squad turnover, with fresh faces not scarred by that agonising near-miss.
But new men repeating old mistakes is no way to end 55 years of hurt, and there was something of that in the much-discussed team sheet that Southgate produced.
Vibrant attacking talents such as Jack Grealish and Jadon Sancho – the latter not even making the bench – having to look on as a two-man defensive midfield shield lined up, were unpopular notes of caution at a time of national fervour.
Yorkshire Pirlo purrs on the big stage
But having Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips manning central areas was key to passages of play such as Kovacic and Brozovic’s ponderous exchange unfolding, as Phil Foden rattled the post and England threatened to fly out of the blocks.
Modric dropped deep to apply a measure of control before the interval and Chelsea’s Kovacic found a smooth rhythm, but not to the extent they escaped Phillips. Freed from his usual holding role, the Leeds United man was everywhere – even flagged offside, something that never happened to him during the whole 2020-21 domestic season.
From the Stockport Iniesta to the Yorkshire Pirlo, this England team have their share of daft nudge-wink nicknames (shhhh, Modric might think they’re being arrogant) but Phillips did all he could to live up to his, completing 95 per cent of his passes in the opposition half.
Bolstered by Mason Mount’s clever movement and use of the ball, Croatia’s midfield maestros were never allowed to enjoy Wembley’s vast expanses.
That is not to say everything Southgate plumped for worked. Harry Kane was a worryingly marginal presence and only had two touches in the Croatia box. With one of those, he failed to convert at the back post when found by a brilliant Mount cross – the sort of first-time delivery usually not available as Kieran Trippier, the right-back playing at left-back, who checked back on to his stronger foot time and again.
But arguably Southgate’s most disputed call proved decisive.
Sterling sounds righteous roar for Three Lions
Amid clamour for the dazzling Grealish to be unleashed, popular opinion had turned against Raheem Sterling’s presence in the England attack. As Manchester City claimed a third Premier League title in four seasons, he became an unusually bit-part player for Pep Guardiola. His outing in the Champions League final defeat against Chelsea in Porto did plenty to explain why.
The 26-year-old has one goal for his club since February but has been a mainstay for Southgate, who chose to reward those performances. Since the last World Cup, Sterling’s 12 goals and six assists were second only to Kane, while no England player had more than his 11 from open play.
Even when he is not in top form, Sterling makes life hell for defenders. On a sweltering day at the national stadium that overlooks his childhood home, he did not stop. His 12 duels contested were more than any team-mate and he forced a promising first-half free-kick from which Trippier hit the wall.
As the hour approached, Sterling was still without a goal for England in a major tournament. Then Phillips strode through midfield with poise and power to pick out the forward, who held his nerve to pouch a 1-0 victory.
“I’ve always said, if I’m playing at Wembley in a major tournament – my back garden – then I’m scoring,” the beaming matchwinner told BBC Sport afterwards.
In the wider context of this game, there could not be a more fitting match-winner for a team taking a knee and taking a stand for positive change.
Sterling has been at the forefront of these conversations since calling out unequal media coverage for white and black players in December 2018, the day after he was abused from the stands in a match at Chelsea.
A year earlier, he was attacked outside City’s training ground by a man who received prison time for kicking him and hurling racist abuse ahead of a game against Tottenham. Sterling scored twice in a 4-1 win.
He also scored for England while targeted by monkey chants in Montenegro and Bulgaria in 2019. With dignity and eloquence, Sterling has been at his best when faced with the worst of this sport. His roar of righteous joy back on home turf was richly deserved.
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