Gareth Southgate was delighted to put smiles on the faces of fans across the nation as England won their opening match at a European Championship for the first time.
Three years on from the heartbreaking World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia, the Three Lions exacted some sort of revenge by giving Zlatko Dalic’s men a bloody nose at the start of Euro 2020.
Raheem Sterling’s first tournament goal – and England’s first at Wembley in front of fans since November 2019 – was enough to secure a 1-0 win in sweltering conditions.
It was an ideal start to Group D at a difficult time for the country, with Southgate pleased by his side’s display against wily opposition.
‘It feels great to have been able to send the fans home happy and to have fans up and down the country happy,’ the England manager said. ‘That’s very special.
‘In terms of the game, I was really pleased with the way we settled so quickly.
‘Some young players, some inexperienced international players, a big occasion – not only a tough opponent but a big occasion, a sweltering hot day.
‘Every reason to potentially look nervous at the start but they didn’t.
‘With and without the ball they were composed, carried out what we wanted to do in terms of pressing brilliantly.
‘Although it was always going to be a game of few clear chances, I thought we looked the bigger threat throughout, really.’
Southgate was happy for man-of-the-match Sterling after he scored his first tournament goal, saying he set the tone and was phenomenal without the ball, and heaped praised on ‘outstanding’ midfielder Kalvin Phillips.
The pair were among a number of strong individual performers that put England in the driving seat in Group D, but Southgate knows complacency cannot be allowed to creep in before they face Scotland on Friday.
‘This is the big challenge for us now, because of course we’re delighted with the win and the players are happy,’ the former defender said.
‘It’s a positive step in terms of qualification, but one of the hardest things in sport is to come back to that point you were at before the kick-off for the next game.
‘You can get a bit of a glow of the win and a bit soft, a bit puddingy, when you poke your finger in the belly.
‘We’ve got to make sure that we’re ready for what is going to be an incredible game against Scotland and a huge challenge.
‘We should enjoy tonight because I think you have to enjoy your wins, especially in tournaments, but focus now.
‘Our first objective is qualification. We haven’t done that yet and we have a very important game for us and our fans on Friday night.’
England will return to Wembley to take on Scotland after a few days of excited chatter and growing expectation.
‘I think the pressure is what we decide it to be,’ Southgate said. ‘We’ve talked about this as a group.
‘We have opportunities to be first to do things. I didn’t realise today was our first win in an opening game, so that’s something they’ve managed to achieve that no other team has done.
‘We just focused on what is this team is about, where do we want to go, how do we work as a group: build on the performances, build on the training that they’ve all put in over the past two weeks.
‘It’s for everybody else to get excited and throw their beer around and do whatever else they want.
‘That’s brilliant to be able to give joy to people but, for us, we’re on to the next and preparing for a really tough game on Friday.’
Croatia head coach Zlatko Dalic was irked by his side’s defending against England but attempted to remain upbeat, with group matches against the Czech Republic and Scotland to come.
‘As we expected, we had to repel the pressure in the first 20 minutes,’ he said. ‘After that, we had an element of control, more or less.
‘Then there was one mistake. We have talked for seven days about not getting caught out of position. They exploited the space and scored.
‘In attack, we didn’t show much quality, but we were playing against England, who are a terrific team.
‘We were their equal most of the time. This is encouraging to me and it will be better in the forthcoming matches.’
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