In front of 22,500 fans, Gareth Southgate’s side avenged their World Cup semi-final defeat in 2018 to make history in winning their first group game at a European Championship for the first time in sweltering conditions at Wembley.
And despite question marks over the selection of Sterling, the Manchester City forward showed everyone why he deserved to start with a smart finish midway through the second half to give the Three Lions all three points.
Team News: Trippier at left-back
There was a lot of speculation over who Southgate would pick to start England’s first group game of the tournament, with some disappointed that Jack Grealish was left on the bench whilst there was a surprise at Kieran Trippier’s inclusion at left-back despite Luke Shaw sitting on the sidelines.
Close to the dream start
And the Atletico Madrid full-back almost provided the opening goal of the game early on when his long throw set Sterling free to run at the Croatia defence, before he found team mate Phil Foden but his left-footed strike curled agonisingly against the inside of the far post and away.
Kalvin Phillips then forced Dominik Livakovic into a sharp stop by firing through a crowded penalty area before Sterling couldn’t find an England shirt with his low ball across the box after good work from Mason Mount.
After a shaky start, Croatia began to feel their way into the contest with some sustained possession, but despite some encouraging build-up play, they were unable to carve out any real chances as the heat appeared to take its toll on both teams.
Trippier had the opportunity to emulate his free-kick from the World Cup semi-final three years ago after Duje Caleta-Car was penalised for handball, but his effort went into the Croatia wall as the teams went into the break on level terms.
England supporters had a heart-in-mouths moment shortly after the interval when Trippier’s pass back to Jordan Pickford looked like it would intercepted by forward Ante Rebic, but fortunately the Everton keeper beat him to it to clear.
And then came the moment of class the game had been waiting for, produced by Leeds’ Phillips after 57 minutes.
The midfielder skipped past a couple of challenges before reversing a pass into the path of Sterling, who got there before Sime Vrsaljko to fire past Livakovic for his first goal at a major tournament.
One almost brought two moments later when Mount crossed to the back post but Harry Kane was unable to turn the ball home, before Rebic lashed wide at the other end as the game began to open up.
Mount and Sterling fired off target for England, whilst Marcelo Brozovic failed to test Pickford at the other end with time running out.
Bellingham makes history
The Three Lions went on to defend confidently and saw out an impressive opening game victory, with Southgate greeting the final whistle with a clenched fist – a sight England fans will become familiar in the coming weeks.