It had all looked so easy for England. Unbeaten in their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign and looking to stroll into next year’s tournament, they even received a welcome gift from their hosts on Friday.
On his first foray into the Czech area, Raheem Sterling found himself in solitude and looked to turn back and open up the pitch.
Barely had the Manchester City winger pivoted, however, than he found an obliging leg cross his body, leading to a penalty as clear-cut as it was dim-witted on the part of defender Lukas Masopust.
Harry Kane stepped up and duly converted the kick, giving Gareth Southgate’s men a dream start. Win number five in as many Group A games looked set to follow, and really should have.
Instead, England looked powerless in the face of a brilliant performance from the home team aided and abetted by their own failings.
Defensively in particular Southgate was left with some serious questions as the manager seeks not merely to gain a place at Euro 2020, but to make his side serious contenders at the tournament.
As it was, the Three Lions rearguard held out just four minutes following Kane’s opener. Having failed to clear their lines during a scramble in the area after a Czech corner, Jakub Brabec whipped home the loose ball past a powerless Jordan Pickford.
Pickford was far more active in an atrocious 45 minutes for England than he must have imagined, coming up with three saves as the hosts rained down shots – 10 in total, only the second time in the last 78 matches an opponent has managed double figures in a single first half against the nation.
Centre-back pairing Michael Keane and Harry Maguire were the principal culprits, looking as comfortable at the heart of defence as two strangers forced to make awkward conversation with each other while sharing a long-distance train journey.
But England’s midfield duo of Jordan Henderson and Damien Rice do not escape criticism either. The pair failed to provide adequate cover for that rickety backline while also doing almost nothing to get their side moving up the pitch, making for a stodgy, lumbering display dependent on individual flashes from the likes of Sterling and Jadon Sancho.
On another day the fleet-footed Sterling could indeed have decided the game in England’s favour, and he was guilty of spurning a fantastic one-on-one opportunity after a rare lull in concentration from the usually rock-solid Czech defence.
But despite late pressure from the away team the Czech Republic were fine value for their victory, sealed by substitute Zdenek Ondrasek five minutes from the end. The result may not be a disaster for England.
They remain odds-on to make Euro 2020 in an automatic qualification place, and would seal a spot on Monday if they down Bulgaria and Kosovo fail to win. Even so, it is a step backwards for a team that under Southgate has consistently promised more.
Bigger challenges will come next year than the sturdy yet rather limited Czechs, and more talented forwards too.
On the evidence of Friday’s showing Europe’s elite goal-scorers will be licking their lips at the prospect of picking holes in England’s ramshackle backline unless serious improvements are made.