Wednesday 23 June 2021 9:45 am

Czech Republic 0, England 1: Phoney war of the group stage is over; England's tournament starts now

For a fleeting moment last night against the Czech Republic it felt like England had finally arrived at Euro 2020. 

Bukayo Saka turned, burst forward, the vast expanses of Wembley opened up and seconds later Raheem Sterling headed the hosts in front.

This was it! An early goal delivered by two west London boys was going to give the home crowd the jump-off moment it has been yearning for.

It proved to be another false dawn, though. England won 1-0 to top Group D but the perfunctory manner did nothing to quicken the pulse.

At this point in major tournaments it is natural to look at the in-form teams and wish England were more like them.

Why can’t they be like the energetic, well-drilled and clinical Italians? Or the gallivanting, free-scoring Dutch?

The problem with that is that the teams that start Euro 2020 like a train probably won’t manage to sustain it.

Portugal, the holders, didn’t win a group game at Euro 2016 and scraped through in third place, behind Hungary and Iceland.

“You can’t win the Open on a Thursday or a Friday, but you can lose it,” Jack Nicklaus said. The same applies to group stages at tournaments.

England following French blueprint for success

Of course, England have served up some turgid football so far at Euro 2020.

Saka highlighted how pedestrian it has been by instantly invigorating the team with a casually devastating performance that will make him hard to drop now.

Harry Kane plodded again, while Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips seem oddly reluctant to carry the ball and drive upfield.

The return of Harry Maguire was a welcome boost on that front and a reminder that key men have been missing.

But if Gareth Southgate has erred firmly on the side of caution, then it is no great mystery why.

After each tournament failure, England are reminded that international football is about controlling possession and being hard to beat.

To do that, he has figured that his defence and midfield need extra men because that is the team’s weakness.

On the other hand, a smattering of attackers can go a long way when they are as good as Sterling, Saka, Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Mason Mount.

So far it has worked. England have won twice and are yet to concede a goal.

France won the World Cup three years ago with a similar mindset: don’t concede and rely on Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann to do the rest.

This is nothing new. Teams don’t bulldoze their way to major tournaments through sheer weight of goals.

Even the great Spain side that won three in a row only scored eight times on their way to claiming the World Cup in 2014.

Just as with France and Portugal, no one was lauding these teams until they won the trophy. Greatness is bestowed when the medals are handed out and the tickertape has settled.

That is when England will be judged. The national team were mostly drab at both the 1990 World Cup and Euro 96 but those tournaments are remembered fondly because they got within touching distance of glory. It was similar in 2018.

The tournament starts now for England. The group stage is a phoney war; what comes next is all that matters.

If they get close again, no one will remember the workmanlike displays in Group D.

If they don’t there will be reprisals, but none that a rout of the Czech Republic, Scotland or Croatia would have staved off.