At the tenth time of asking, England finally won their opening game of a European Championships with a 1-0 victory over Croatia at Wembley. Getting their Euro 2020 campaign off on the right track, the Three Lions gave 22,500 fans in attendance something to cheer about on a sunny day in west London.
England fans, many still jaded by the lifeless performances the national side gave at Euro 2016, could be forgiven for some pre-tournament pessimism. But bookies put England as joint 5/1 favourites alongside France in the early Euros 2020 betting markets, and Gareth Southgate’s side certainly had the look of a robust side in their opening match.
England Show Signs of Progress
Despite coming under some criticism for a conservative squad selection, under Southgate, this England side has played some of its best football in the 21st century. Roy Hodgson’s 2016 outfit, meanwhile, was famous for Harry Kane on corner duty, the Spurs frontman squeezed awkwardly into the team alongside a late-career Wayne Rooney.
That team conceded late in its opening game against Russia to contribute to that torrid streak of European openers. But worse was yet to come, with a narrow win over Wales and toothless 0-0 display against Slovakia preceding one of European football’s biggest upsets.
With a population of only 350,000, Iceland were one of the smallest nations to take part in the European Championships, and they entered their first major tournament simply happy to be involved. But bright performances in draws against Portugal and Hungary shortly became wins, with a late winner against Austria sending the minnows through to the knockout stage.
Intimidating Iceland get to Insipid England
Famous for their fans’ intimidating ‘thunderclap’ during games, on the pitch, Iceland were defensively stout and aggressive off the ball. Among their contingent were players with domestic experience in England like Gylfi Sigurðsson and Aron Gunnarsson. But despite 16 teams making the knockout round in the new 24-team format, no one pegged Iceland for a deep tournament run. When they were drawn against England, many pundits dismissed their chances immediately.
But what followed was the stuff of dreams in Reykjavík and the stuff of nightmares in London. Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty put the Three Lions on the right track, but quick goals from Ragnar Sigurðsson and Kolbeinn Sigþórsson put Iceland ahead – a lead they would not relinquish.
Although Iceland would go on to lose in the quarter-finals to host nation France, they won plaudits from all sides for their rigid defensive style and never-say-die attitude. The same could not be said for England, with Roy Hodgson handing in his resignation shortly after the final whistle.
But England put that all in the rear-view mirror with victory in their opening game at Wembley this time around. Only three members of that 2016 starting eleven remain in the England setup several years on. With Gareth Southgate on the touchline and a side full of young talent like Phil Foden, Mason Mount and – yes – even a revitalised Raheem Sterling, this England team looks a million miles from where it once was.