Tuesday was a late night of action at these European Championships, with both games kicking off in the United Kingdom and forcing eastern parts of the continent to stay up late for the drama.
Group D’s British sides were both at home, needing their fans to roar them on to important results.
England, quite simply, needed to beat the Czech Republic to seal top spot, while for Scotland and Croatia the equation was a little more complicated; both requiring a win to go through, but not knowing whether it would be enough for second or third place.
So, let’s get down to it.
Gareth Southgate made four changes to his Three Lions side after a minor setback against Scotland, with Harry Maguire, Kyle Walker, Bukayo Saka and Jack Grealish coming in for Tyrone Mings, Reece James, Phil Foden and the unavailable Mason Mount.
The virtues of Mount’s exclusion from this game, alongside Chelsea teammate Ben Chilwell, can be discussed and debated, but really, it’s a matter of bureaucracy as Southgate stated before and after this match.
Fortunately, all four of the players who regained their spots hit the ground running, and England had an early lift-off against the Czechs.
Saka twisted one way and then another on the right byline, Harry Kane worked it out to Grealish on the left, and a dinked cross to the far post providing a bounty for Raheem Sterling, who is well versed in feeding on such close-range service at Manchester City.
The headed finish by the shortest player on the pitch was perfect, and England had the goal they desperately needed after only 12 minutes.
They continued to pile the pressure on, too, making life hard for the Czechs on their first tournament visit to Wembley since the 1996 Euros Final.
On that occasion, the likes of Patrik Berger, Karel Poborský and Pavel Nedvěd were beaten by Germany via Oliver Bierhoff’s golden goal. This current generation had a real task to get back in this and wrestle back top spot in the group.
To be fair to them, the Czechs did press hard, and after their initially defensive game plan was upset, their approach was far more positive.
While most were playing a stilted international game, though, Saka was the breath of fresh air, capturing his exciting form for Arsenal with free, jelly-legged wing play for the hosts.
With no more goals before half-time, the introduction of Jordan Henderson followed, and England could control the game to an even greater degree.
With all of their leaders on the pitch, an appropriately mature performance followed from Southgate’s team, but there was little attacking threat to speak of in the second half – from either side.
The defensive aspect of that was an area to commend England for, as they completed a set of three group games without conceding.
Interestingly, they were only the fourth different nation to achieve that at the Euros, after Italy at 1980 and here in 2021, Germany in 1996 and 2016, and Poland in 2016.
Only once has that coincided with winning the competition.
Regardless, England will take confidence from their ability to restrict opponents from this group stage – even if those opponents sometimes restricted themselves.
They have much more to give, and it’s just a matter of whether they can adapt and switch it on when playing a different type of opponent; one of Group F’s titans next, for example.
We shall see.
Meanwhile, there were matters north of the border to conclude.
Both sides made attacking changes for this fixture, but Croatia’s quality was expected to triumph.
So it proved, quite honestly, as Nikola Vlasic opened the scoring for the Croats when a cross was headed back by Ivan Perišić and Scott McTominay – converted from midfield to defence – seemed to pass over responsibility for Vlašić, only for nobody else to fill in.
Callum McGregor of course scored his wonderful 18-yard laser of an equaliser just before half-time, which the Scots did deserve for their hard work, but more pressure was to follow.
It was just unfortunate for Steve Clarke and his men that when that pressure came, it was in the form of a frustrated Luka Modrić, who was keen to stamp his authority on the tournament after a quiet couple of matches.
The class of Modric’s no-look, outside-of-the-boot strike in the 62nd minute was unquestionable, while his assist for Ivan Perisic’s headed goal in the 77th minute only sealed his evening’s work.
That will teach anyone to doubt the Croatians, and as they await Group E’s second-placed side in the Round of 16, you’d have to give them a reasonable chance against sides lacking firepower – either Sweden, Slovakia or Poland, you’d have to presume.
So that was it; the night done, and contrasting fortunes for all four teams. Ultimately, the group produced the order of sides many expected, albeit not in the manner that most could have foreseen.
The goals were perhaps lacking, but there were plenty of interesting lessons to take into the next round.
Performance of the Day: Luka Modrić claims this accolade today, based off what you’ve only just read! His second-half performance was match-winning against Scotland, exactly what the Croatians needed from their leader after such a stressful group stage. Here’s to hoping that he retains such style for the next round.
Up Next: The final group stage action we’ll have at these Euros! A 5pm-8pm double-header awaits us this Wednesday, with Group E the first to finish as Spain host Slovakia and Sweden face off against Poland. Expect low scoring, and the potential for one defensive mistake to decide who goes through.
It’ll be quite the opposite in Group F, where the evening should bring nerve-jangling events in Budapest, where Hungary welcome Germany, and Munich, where France and Portugal replay the 2016 final as all four sides have a real chance of making it into the last 16. Prepare yourselves, it’s about to get funky…
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!