You can forgive England fans for getting carried away now. On a highly-charged night at Wembley Stadium, Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions did just enough to overcome a spirited Denmark side and book their place in Sunday’s final against Italy, with punters scrambling to bet on Italy v England [valid where legal]. The Danes gave it everything, but in the end, they grew tired and England managed to put them away, albeit with a slice or two of luck.
But that won’t matter. The reality is that this was England’s biggest test of the tournament so far. As much as the Germany game had decades of historical baggage attached, in pure footballing terms, this was the hardest England had to work at Euro 2020. Denmark started brilliantly, quelling England’s early advances before taking control of the game themselves. Mikkel Damsgaard’s stunning free kick was no more than they deserved, and suddenly England were rattled, faced with a scenario they hadn’t experienced at these Euros yet — conceding a goal and going behind.
Seeds of doubt were sown in the back of every England fan’s mind when Damsgaard’s swerving effort hit the back of the net. The bitter memories of Croatia 2018, Iceland 2016, Germany 1996 and 1990, and so many more devastating heartbreaks at major tournaments came flooding back, and many were wondering if this was to be the inevitable moment where England falter.
But this is Gareth Southgate’s deluxe England. England 2.0. There was no panic from the team as there might have been in years gone by. Instead, they stuck to their gameplan, regained control of the midfield battle, and before long chances were coming their way. Raheem Sterling was denied by a stunning Kasper Schmeichel save, but the Leicester keeper could do nothing to keep the ball out of the net five minutes before the break. Bukayo Saka found himself in space inside the Danish penalty area, and his square ball was bundled into the net by Denmark defender Simon Kjær, under pressure from Sterling. England were level, and the Wembley crowd believed once more.
It was perhaps surprising that Southgate didn’t make more substitutions in the second half. For much of the second period, England struggled to create chances, and Denmark were content to sit back, soak up the pressure, and try and hit England on the counter attack. The arrival of Jack Grealish was met with a roar, but even he struggled to weave his magic against a stubborn Danish defence.
By the full-time whistle, it was clear that Denmark were flagging, and who could blame them. The exertions of an unlikely run to the semi-finals, charged by the emotion of what happened to Christian Eriksen in their opening match, ultimately took their toll, and it seemed as though there could only be one winner from the moment the first whistle of extra-time blew.
Still, England struggled, but they were handed the chance of victory by referee Danny Makkelie, who awarded a penalty despite minimal contact on Sterling. Up stepped Harry Kane, who received his own piece of good fortune when his penalty was saved by Schmeichel, the ball rolling back into his path for the easy task of tucking away the rebound, bumping him up in the Euro 2020 top scorers charts.
There was to be no Danish revival. England had done it. The scenes which greeted the full-time whistle were genuinely moving. 55 years of pent-up emotion released in one massive wave. Most impressive was Southgate, who didn’t lose his cool when it seemed to be slipping away from England. The gaffer stuck to his guns, and his team passed the test. There is another big one to come, but whatever happens, England can be proud of what they have achieved at this tournament.
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