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Gareth Southgate lauds England's "intelligence" against Croatia

Gareth Southgate lauds England's
© Reuters
Raheem Sterling scored the only goal as the Three Lions defeated Croatia at Wembley.

Gareth Southgate was pleased to hit the ground running as England took a big step towards qualifying from their Euro 2020 group ahead of Friday's clash against old foes Scotland.

Sunday saw the Three Lions win a European Championship opener for the first time in their history when World Cup semi-final heartbreakers Croatia travelled to sweltering Wembley.

Raheem Sterling's first major tournament goal was the difference under the arch as a controlled, measured performance helped England start Group D with a 1-0 victory in front of a socially distanced crowd.

The Three Lions are back at Wembley on Friday for a mouth-watering clash against Scotland, with Southgate looking to build on the promising, mature performance.

"They're very pleased with the performance as much as anything," the England boss said.

"You come into a major tournament, you want to give a good account of yourselves and of course we know that the first objective is qualifying from the group.

"So today you want the win but to not lose is also important in those occasions, but I was really impressed with how they settled quickly into the game with and without the ball.

"Our pressing was good throughout the team and we used the ball with intelligence and with some quality.

England had to dig in against Croatia
England had to dig in against Croatia (Martin Rickett/PA)

"I felt we probably deserved to be ahead before we got the goal, but then we also managed the game well. We didn't really invite too much pressure.

"There's always going to be moments like the long throw at the end but I thought we were pretty controlled throughout."

The victory was vindication for some of Southgate's highly-scrutinised selections, including giving Sterling the nod over Jack Grealish despite the Manchester City forward's underwhelming end to the campaign.

"He's been a reliable performer for us for a long period of time and his goals record in the last two-and-a-half years with us and with his club (has been good)," Southgate said.

"I mean, even this year, I know people are saying he hasn't hit the heights but he's still one in three for his club and we can't have all the burden of scoring on Harry (Kane)'s shoulders.

"You've got to have players in those wide players and midfield that can chip in as well.

"I thought he looked a threat the whole day. Delighted for him because obviously it's quite a few tournament matches without scoring before today's game."

Southgate was also full of praise for the selfless work done by skipper Kane, having proved an effective thorn in Croatia's side without getting away a notable shot.

England skipper Harry Kane put the team first on Sunday
England skipper Harry Kane put the team first on Sunday (Martin Rickett/PA)

"I think he led the line really well," the Three Lions boss said. "It was a game where he had to take a lot of physical buffeting.

"A lot of the game for him today was to link and to create spaces. He did for the goal for others to go and play.

"Of course there are days when the chances will fall to him and he'll be the one able to get his shots away.

"Today he was really tightly marked by their team and crowded out. They know what a threat he is, not only high up the pitch but dropping between the lines.

"I haven't actually seen the chance at the far post yet to see how good a chance that was, but he brings so much more to our team than just the goals."

Kane and Sterling were among six survivors in the starting line-up from the World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia three years ago.

Among the five tournament debutants starting on Sunday was Kalvin Phillips, with the "high performance, low maintenance" midfielder capping a superb display with an assist.

"We watched him a lot the season before last in the Championship," Southgate added. "We were going to bring him into the squad ahead of the Euros a year ago.

"He's now had a year of Premier League football. He's technically good and we also knew that the athleticism in midfield today would be so important.

"We had to get tight to their three midfield players and Mason (Mount), Kalvin and Declan (Rice) did that really well along with the wide players helping out and Harry taking up the right positions.

"They did a lot of the job for the defence to limit the opportunities and Kalvin is a fabulous boy to work with, so unassuming.

"I thought his performance was outstanding. Two passes in the first half in behind the defence were top level and the contribution for the goal summed his day up, really."

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England manager Gareth Southgate applauds fans after the match on June 6, 2021
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