Zdenek Ondraseks 85th-minute strike gave Czech Republic a 2-1 victory over England and consigned the visitors to their first qualifying match defeat in a decade
This was the night when England had wanted to secure their qualification to the Euro 2020 finals, to fire the excitement ahead of what stands to be a home tournament, with so many of the ties next summer to be held at Wembley. A win against a game if functional Czech Republic team would have done it but, after following an error-strewn first-half performance with an improved second period, they switched off at the end to slip to a shock defeat.
The Czech substitute Zdenek Ondrasek was the match-winner, running on to Lukas Masopusts pass to finish, as the visiting defence not for the first time were reduced to bystanders and England were left to contemplate a first qualification defeat since the loss to Ukraine in October 2009.
A bizarre statistic had showed that England had not won in Prague since 1908 when Bohemia were the opponents and this was a setback for Gareth Southgate, given that everything his team does is viewed through the prism of how they might fare at the finals. Play like this and it will not end well.
Once again, the defensive looseness was a major worry and, although chances came and went in the second half, England had flirted with trouble for much of the evening. The hard truth was that only Jordan Pickford, who made three good saves, and Harry Kane, who scored from the penalty spot, emerged with credit, although Raheem Sterling had some nice moments. He blotted his copybook with a one-on-one miss in the 58th minute.
Southgate had set up in a 4-2-3-1 system, with the full debutant Mason Mount in the No 10 role, and it did not work. England were second best during the first half, frequently overrun in central areas, and it was no surprise when the manager reverted to his more familiar 4-3-3 formation after the interval. Mount has not played in that position for Chelsea this season and Southgates rejig was an admission he had got it wrong.
The idea was that the formation would make England more solid without the ball but the team looked unbalanced, with Jordan Henderson and Declan Rise unable to get England playing or assert any control. Southgates team were too open, giving up too many chances, while their lack of care on the ball was hard to watch, particularly in the first half, when it felt as though Henderson could not buy a pass to a teammate.
If the defensive frailties were writ large across the 5-3 win over Kosovo at St Marys last month, they resurfaced here and the inquest into the concession for 1-1 will not be pretty. There was a slip from Rice in the centre, following Jakub Janktos corner, which allowed Ondrej Celustka to smuggle an effort towards goal and Jakub Brabec to touch home from close range. Michael Keane, who endured a difficult evening, was the nearest England defender to Brabec and he was not close enough. The corner had come after Pickford had done well to turn Celustkas drive around the post.
It was a soft goal to concede and not the only time that England looked vulnerable when trying to defend corners. Patrik Schick almost got onto the end of one in the 17th minute but the angle was against his diving header.
England had taken an early lead and there was much to admire in the way that Mount and Kane combined to send Sterling tearing clear up the inside left channel. Kanes first-time release was a show-stopper and so was Sterlings cut back, which led to Masopust sweeping his legs away. Kane clipped his penalty up the middle, having waited slightly for Tomas Vaclik to commit himself.
Englands loss of the initiative was one of the many disappointments and it was no exaggeration to say that the Czechs dominated for long spells before the interval. The home team pressed high and quickly, often with five players, and England struggled to play through them. They were left to grope for a foothold. England pieced together just one move of quality in the first half, on 33 minutes, when most of the forward-thinking players were involved, Kane played the final pass to Mount and he was stopped by Celustkas tackle.
Mount had been pressed high, sometimes alongside Kane, but Southgate dropped him back to the left of a midfield three at the start of the second half. England looked much more comfortable and the chances came, with Kane the architect of the clearest one for Sterling.
It was another lovely first-time ball from Kane but Sterling could not walk the ball around Vaclik. Kanes sharp and incisive passing was a plus point of the performance and he also played in Jadon Sancho with a weighted ball over the top. With Brabec in pursuit, Sancho never looked as though he would take the chance and he did not. It was off-night for the winger but he was not alone.
Pickford made second-half saves to deny Masopust and Alex Kral the first an excellent tip over the crossbar and it was England who pressed and looked the likelier scorers. Kane could be angry at himself when he failed to apply a decisive touch with the outside of his boot to a Sterling cross and he could not beat Vaclik following a pass from the substitute Ross Barkley. Then came the sting in the tail from Ondrasek, the 30-year-old from FC Dallas. Cue the soul-searching for Southgate.