By Martyn Herman
LONDON (Reuters) – England made a hugely impressive start to their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign as Raheem Sterling scored a hat-trick in a 5-0 thrashing of a sorry Czech Republic side on Friday.
A mood of optimism swept around a large Wembley crowd before the Group A game kicked off and England’s hungry young lions responded with a display full of pace and panache.
Sterling opened the scoring from Jadon Sancho’s cross in the 23rd minute and Harry Kane’s penalty put England in complete control on the stroke of halftime.
There was a brief flurry from the Czechs at the start of the second half but normal service was soon resumed as Sterling curled home his second of the night just past the hour.
The Manchester City forward was unstoppable and he completed his first hat-trick for England seven minutes later with a deflected drive past Czech keeper Jiri Pavlenka.
Sterling was substituted to huge applause soon after as manager Gareth Southgate gave Chelsea teenager Callum Hudson-Odoi his first senior cap — at 18 years 135 days the youngest player to make his England debut in a competitive match.
West Ham United midfielder Declan Rice also came off the bench to win his first England cap, weeks after switching allegiance from Ireland with whom he earned three senior caps.
The Czechs’ misery was complete when Tomas Kalas bundled in an own goal in the 84th minute.
“It was a brilliant team performance, we pressed, we made it difficult for them, got the goals and were clinical,” captain Kane said.
“We’re playing good football, everyone is expressing themselves, we have young, hungry players and it showed tonight.”
Apart from an early hip injury to Eric Dier, who will miss Monday’s trip to Montenegro, it was a blemish-free night for Southgate and his zestful squad who this June will aim for silverware in the climax to the inaugural Nations League.
A starting lineup with an average age of 24 were simply too good for the lumbering Czechs, for whom the likes of world class players such as Pavel Nedved and Tomas Rosicky must now seem a distant memory.
The memories of the days when England often laboured against mediocre opposition are also fading fast with Southgate spoiled for choice with technically-gifted young talents.
They ended the match with two players (Sancho and Hudson-Odoi) aged 18 or under on the field — the first time that has happened for 138 years.
England’s opening goal was a lesson in patience as they threaded passes around the lush turf before Kane’s ball released Borussia Dortmund’s London-born winger Sancho and his low cross was turned in by Sterling at full stretch.
Moments before halftime Czech defenders Pavel Kaderabek and Tomas Kalas made a sandwich out of Sterling as he tried to surge between them and Kane dispatched the penalty past Pavlenka.
It was Kane’s 16th goal in his last 18 starts for England, but it was to be Sterling’s night to shine.
Shortly after Czech Republic’s Tomas Soucek glanced a header just wide, Sterling casually curled home after a ball from Manchester City team mate Kyle Walker ricocheted to him.
Sterling’s luck was in again in the 67th minute as his speculative shot took a big deflection and flew past Pavlenka.
Brimming with confidence England hunted more goals and Sancho’s goalbound shot was blocked by Filip Novak before Hudson-Odoi’s effort was saved by Pavlenka, only for Kalas to clumsily turn the ball past his keeper.
In Friday’s other Group A match, Bulgaria drew 1-1 at home with Montenegro.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Toby Davis)