Forget permutations and easier sides of the draw, England took matters into their own hands and ensured they are masters of their own fate. Which is precisely what they needed to do after their dismal display against Scotland.
A win against Czech Republic has set them on course for a daunting round-of-16 tie against France, Germany or Portugal. But it will be at Wembley next Tuesday and, crucially, on the back of the type of uplifting performance they badly needed.
It was only 1-0 – but there was enough in this to point to better times ahead.
Gareth Southgate unleashed the thrilling attacking talents of Jack Grealish and Bukayo Saka. As a result, the previously listless Harry Kane looked far more potent – even if he did not open his account at these Euros.
Rather it was Raheem Sterling who scored the winner and his second goal of the tournament as he flourished in a central role as England’s wide men stretched the Czechs.
This was not perfect – but it was a game full of attacking intent. There was no doubting England came out to win – and even as the game drew to a close, they went in search of a second, rather than protect what they had.
In the end, Southgate placed greater importance on momentum, rather than try plot the perfect route to the final. What is more important – an easier passage or the morale lift that comes with a positive performance and a win?
That Southgate determined it was the former should be a source of encouragement for England supporters who chanted “It’s Coming Home” at the final whistle. This is a home tournament that is yet to catch fire after the Three Lions’ balloon was burst somewhat by Scotland’s tartan army. Could Southgate really risk crawling into the knockout stages?
That was always going to be the question once results on Monday confirmed England’s qualification. Just how desperate would they be to win this game?
The answer was emphatic with another flying start as Sterling struck the post when racing onto Luke Shaw’s through ball. But unlike the games against Croatia and Scotland, England managed to maintain a tempo that the Czechs struggled to contain.
Even if they could not add to Sterling’s 12th-minute header, there was more fluidity to this performance than they have managed at any point in the previous two games. This was evidence of a team that is improving – feeling its way into the tournament.
Southgate will struggle to break up an attack that few expected him to start with, but one that looked capable of causing damage going forward.
Saka was deservedly named Man of the Match and Grealish lived up to all the hype with a performance of individual brilliance that suggested he could be England’s ultimate game-changer. That both were named in the starting XI for the first time in a major tournament immediately sent out the right message. There was no hint of Southgate being happy to throw this one, with the changes made either enforced or tactical.
Saka’s inclusion was the biggest surprise – but only in the sense that he got the nod ahead of Jadon Sancho, rather than the fact Phil Foden was omitted after failing to set the tournament alight so far. Grealish’s start was long overdue and made easier by the absence of Mason Mount, who is in isolation as a precaution over Covid-19. Harry Maguire was also back in the heart of defence after recovering from an ankle injury.
Saka and Grealish did not take long to justify their inclusion – combining for the opening goal. Saka’s run and cross from the right fell to Grealish on the opposite side of the box and he found Sterling at the back post to head England in front.
By that point Sterling had already hit the post with England’s forwards repeatedly exploiting gaps in the Czech defence.
The movement up front was in complete contrast to the previous two games, with Saka and Grealish committing defenders and opening up space for Kane and Sterling to attack.
Kane even managed his first shots on target of the tournament – one after an incisive pass from the returning Harry Maguire, followed by a sharp turn in the box, forcing a save from Tomas Vaclik.
While England were more fluid going forward, there were holes at the back. Tomas Holes forced a stretching save from Jordan Pickford with one long-ranger and Tomas Soucek should have hit the target from inside the box.
The second half was a scrappier affair, with England missing the control of Declan Rice after he was replaced by Jordan Henderson. But Southgate continued to make attacking changes as he went in search of a second goal that looked like it had come from Henderson late on, only for the offside flag to be raised.
A win by the narrowest of margins was enough to see England top Group D and progress to the knockouts having yet to concede a goal. It may not have been perfect, but it was a positive step forward that gives the country something to get behind.
If we have learned anything about this England side it is that they are fast starters. The problem has been in taking advantage of those starts. On three occasions they have hit the woodwork early on, only to fizzle out as the game progressed.
On this occasion they maintained that momentum after Sterling clipped the post. His goal gave them the platform to build on and the hope is this will be a turning point.
Grealish to start in the last 16
Grealish did precisely what England fans were convinced he would. He twisted the blood of defenders and created openings that have been so hard to come by.
He was so good that the Wembley crowd booed when his number came up midway through the second half.
But the decision to rest his legs suggest Southgate has seen enough to convince him that the Aston Villa playmaker has to start again next time out.