Raheem Sterling replicated the devastating form that he has shown at Manchester City, when he scored a hat-trick for England against opponents Czech Republic.
England thrashed the Czech Republic 5-0 at Wembley on Friday night in their first Euro 2020 qualifying match.
The Czech Republic are a shadow of the force they once were but that should not diminish this England performance. The injury to Eric Dier aside, it was an excellent night.
Jadon Sancho delighted the crowd and anyone who loves football, Jordan Henderson was superb in the heart of midfield and Declan Rice got his first 27 minutes in an England shirt to a very positive reaction, given the controversies of the last 48 hours.
As for Sterling, he took his season’s tally to 24 goals for club and country and recorded his first international hat-trick. He is scoring regularly these days — this was his second treble this month following Manchester City’s 3-1 victory against Watford at the Etihad Stadium.
Under Guardiola – impressively endorsed and nurtured by Southgate – he has made enormous strides as a player and finisher.
His movement, his increasingly clinical nature in front of goal — he has emerged as one of the finest forwards in Europe.
Here Sterling scored three and won the penalty for England’s second goal. He left with the match ball and something more. Trust, faith, certainty. Everyone believes in Sterling now. Not that Southgate ever wavered.
It was his second goal, England’s third on the night, that summed up the change in the player.
Dele Alli had tried to thread a pass through and got lucky when the interception deflected into Sterling’s path.
What he did with it, however, was not fortunate in the least.
His turn took two defenders out of the game and time seemed to stop as he sized up the goal and struck his shot sweetly past goalkeeper Jiri Pavlenka.
Such coolness under pressure, such composure, such precision. So many traits that were rarely associated with Sterling when he first broke into the England team.
The hat-trick goal had an element of luck about it, mind. Sterling hit a tidy shot but the ball flipped off the shoulder of Ondrej Celustka, beyond the despairing Pavlenka.
It was one of those nights. A lot went right for England.
For the fifth, Callum Hudson-Odoi – on for Sterling, who took his ovation after 70 minutes and the man of the match award not long after – had a shot well saved but defender Tomas Kalas slotted it into his own net anyway.
Good and bad news for Chelsea there. Hudson-Odoi is one of the players who might receive more opportunities if FIFA enforce their transfer ban this summer.
But so, too, is Kalas — currently on loan at Bristol City — and he looked about as ready for it as Maurizio Sarri’s tobacconist.
Back to Sterling, though, and the goal that established England’s lead was straight from the Manchester City playbook. It wasn’t just that Sterling was the scorer, but that Sancho played the Leroy Sane wide role and Harry Kane filled in as the scheming David Silva. It is a sign of the fluidity of Southgate’s regime that England now possess forwards effortlessly capable of dropping in and out of wide and deep positions.
They can keep the ball, too — 25 passes leading up to the goal, involving almost all of the team. Who touched it? Who didn’t touch it would be an easier question to answer. Alli.
The other 10, including substitute Ross Barkley and goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, all got a feel of the ball at some time before Sterling put it in the net.
He has come of age as an England player when so often he has been the scapegoat.
Sterling regularly finishes bottom of the fan polls giving marks to each England player – sometimes, during the World Cup, he had a lower mark than any opposition player, too – and it seemed to play on his mind, signing off on social media as ‘the hated one’ not so long ago.
Gary Neville said that Sterling needed pep talks about the negativity even under the regime of Roy Hodgson, but this campaign has been a game-changer.
What an asset Sterling looked as he broke the deadlock. Let’s pick it up 22 passes in, when Kane finds Sancho on the right with a lovely, weighted pass that made full use of the young man’s speed and intelligence. Having got in behind the Czechs he just needed to deliver the end product and Sancho picked out Sterling at the far post – the Czechs now so stretched, he was tapping the ball into an empty net.
The visitors’ plan was to contain, but by half time the strategy was in ruins. Sterling again. Twenty seconds of injury time had elapsed when Alli played a neat, first-touch flick into Sterling’s path as he burst into the area.
A panicking Czech defensive duo of Pavel Kaderabek and Kalas trapped him in an old-fashioned sandwich and referee Artur Dias of Portugal pointed to the spot. Kane struck the ball hard – just as well, as Pavlenka got a hand to it.
Not that it was just about goals. There was plenty of entertainment watching Sancho, in particular, and one nutmeg of Czech left back Filip Novak drew a chorus of complimentary ‘ooos’ from the crowd.
What else did we learn? That England supporters – well, many of them – are reasonable sorts.
Early on, Dier went down after a heavy tackle by Tomas Soucek. Declan ‘Up the RA’ Rice was instructed to warm up. Any signs of resentment? Not in the least. Rice got a warm reception and wisely applauded the fans back.
True, he wasn’t at the end that keep anti-Irish nationalist sentiment alive, but as the first indication of how Rice’s relationship with the fans might develop it was a positive one. Southgate then brought Barkley on instead, but Rice got his chance later.
England overwhelmed by positives right now, it seems.