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By Mitch Phillips

LONDON (Reuters) – England delivered an efficient but hardly scintillating display to beat Czech Republic 1-0 with an early Raheem Sterling header on Tuesday to advance to Euro 2020’s last 16 as Group D winners, with the Czechs through as one of the best third-placed teams.

Sterling scored his and England’s second goal of the competition in the 12th minute but the initial injection of pace, intensity and crowd-pleasing excitement brought by Jack Grealish and teenager Bukayo Saka gradually dissipated as the game petered out into an utterly forgettable second half.

Neither coach will mind though as they now begin to plot their assaults on the knockout phase.

England will return to Wembley on Tuesday to face the runners up from Group E – likely to be France, Germany or Portugal – while the Czechs will have to wait to find out who they play. They were dislodged from second place by Croatia, who beat Scotland 3-1 and will play the Group E runners up – Sweden, Slovakia, Spain or Poland – in Copenhagen on Monday.

The match began in a strange Wembley atmosphere, a far cry from the initial excitement of the Croatia and Scotland games.

With both teams already assured of progress and with the nagging question of whether second place was a better option than winning the group hanging over the game, it hardly added up to a white knuckle, winner takes all occasion.

That changed quickly, however as, for the third successive game, England struck a post early on, this time it was Sterling who lifted the ball past advancing goalkeeper Tomas Vaclik with two minutes on the clock.

Ten minutes later Sterling hit the target with a close-range header from a delicious floated cross by Grealish after a driving run by Saka had splintered the Czech rearguard.

Making his first appearance of the tournament, the 19-year-old wide man showed a willingness to run with the ball that was painfully absent from England’s first two performances and, with Grealish also a constant threat, the hosts looked much more threatening.

Harry Kane looked sharper too and had a shot well saved late in the first half by Vaclik, but that early promise was gradually replaced by the all-too-familiar caution and England barely mustered another meaningful attempt.

The Czechs were neat and tidy without carrying a huge amount of penalty box threat, though Tomas Holes had a shot palmed clear by Jordan Pickford and Tomas Soucek fired just wide in the first half.

Substitute Jordan Henderson thought he had scored his first goal for England five minutes from time after a scramble, only to see it ruled out for offside.

Overall though it was desperately thin gruel for most of the second half, with the loudest cheers reserved for the big screen announcements of Croatia’s goals that eliminated Scotland.

(Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris)