England reached a final of a major competition after 55 years and for the first time at the European Championships with a hard-fought 2-1 win over Denmark in the semi-final at Wembley.
After years of underachievement, the Three Lions finally looked like a confident unit as they face an in-form Italy in the final on Sunday.
But for England going past the semi-final stage, a hurdle they have often struggled to overcome is a small victory in itself. They were made to sweat by a determined Denmark who took the lead in the contest but it did not stop England from overturning the deficit and booking a place in the Wembley showpiece.
Whether England bring it home or not remains to be seen, but under manager Gareth Southgate, it appears to a question of when and not if they will succeed at a major international competition.
Here are the some key factors that led to England overcoming the semi-final hurdle.
The biggest talking point of the match was the penalty awarded to England in extra time that led to Harry Kane’s winner. Replays showed that Raheem Sterling went down without much contact inside the box but VAR upheld the referee’s decision causing more controversy and angst among some Denmark and neutral supporters.
To add insult to injury, Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel saved Kane’s penalty but the rebound fell kindly for Kane to slot home with Schmeichel lying helplessly on the ground.
The Danes had been excellent defensively all game and despite growing English pressure had managed to thwart the home side’s efforts. But just when it looked that Denmark would take England to penalties, the referee’s decision to controversially award England a free-kick left a bad taste in the mouth of individuals. Many experts including Arsene Wenger and former England defender Gary Neville felt that it should not have been a penalty.
When Mikkel Damsgaard scored for Denmark with a stunning free-kick in the first-half, many England fans and even players would have felt a sense of deja vu. The Three Lions have been eliminated at the semi-finals stage four times at major competitions including the 2018 Fifa World Cup.
Despite the anxiety inside the Wembley stadium, England never seemed too troubled by the Danish goal, the first one they had conceded in the competition. Gareth Southgate’s men stuck to their plan and remained on the front foot. While equaliser came after just nine minutes, England were forced into extra-time by the resolute Danes.
But England were in control of the game and kept creating chances. There was a touch of fortune about England’s winner but they certainly deserved it on the balance of play.
Another aspect about England that made the difference was the depth in the squad. Southgate was able to bring on Jack Grealish, Phil Foden and Jordan Henderson from the bench and those fresh legs were able to make an impact on the game.
England showed having come through a tricky test that they are no longer a collection of superstars but a team that is equal to if not more than the sum of its parts. This is not the England of the old, this is new England.
Sterling, Saka repay Southgate’s faith
Raheem Sterling ended England’s last European Championship campaign vilified after a lacklustre performance in their humiliating exit against minnows Iceland in 2016. Fast-forward five years and the England fans who had turned Sterling into public enemy number one were cheering his name to the Wembley rafters.
It was Sterling who carried the biggest threat for England on a night when Denmark’s obdurate defence posed a formidable barrier. Even in extra time, when England were in danger of being taken to the lottery of a penalty shoot-out, Sterling kept demanding the ball as he probed away at the Denmark rearguard.
He has scored three times in Euro 2020 and was heavily involved in England’s equaliser against the Danes when his run towards Bukayo Saka’s cross forced Simon Kjaer to turn the ball into his own net.
No wonder England boss Gareth Southgate wrapped Sterling in a huge embrace during the post-match celebrations. “I thought Raheem was a thorn in their side all night,” Southgate said.
Another player whose inclusion in the England team raised a few eyebrows for Arsenal’s Bukayo Saka. But with England in desperate need of a quick response to Denmark’s shock opener, Saka showed why Southgate has such faith in the teenager.
The Arsenal forward delivered a vibrant display in the last-16 victory against Germany before missing Saturday’s quarter-final win against Ukraine with a minor knock suffered in training.
Accelerating onto Harry Kane’s pass, Saka timed his run perfectly to beat the Denmark offside trap. He raced into the penalty area and whipped a low cross towards Raheem Sterling, with Simon Kjaer’s attempt to block only succeeding in diverting the ball into his own net.
Saka was still having an impact when he was surprisingly replaced by Grealish and will surely have a role to play in the final.
(With AFP inputs)