Denmark and Spain or Italy stand between England and the greatest transformation in their history, from the excruciating defeat to Iceland at Euro 2016 to the restoration of faith in a new, stellar crop of players.
Gareth Southgate’s men are through to their second consecutive tournament semi-final - their third, if you count the Nations League - with a dismissive 4-0 win over Ukraine, a fifth clean sheet in this competition and a dazzling display of depth. Five years after they imploded against Iceland, England made mass substitutions at 4-0 up in a European Championship quarter-final.
Denmark and the southern superpowers, Spain or Italy, will expose Southgate’s side to a much hotter test, but they have improved rapidly, through the Germany and Ukraine matches, and now return to Wembley for the climax of this far-flung jamboree. Southgate’s supposedly “cautious” gameplan has been vindicated. An infectious confidence now runs through this squad.
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The dream of international football is that players can live out their childhood fantasies in the most sacred jersey they can ever wear. No England player has felt the full thrill of that calling since 1966. It won’t be easy for Southgate’s lot to make that final jump. Already, though, his 2021 team are achieving personal highs on this cobbled-together tournament stage.
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Harry Kane had still not scored 84 minutes into his fourth match - against Germany in the round of 16. Then he scored twice in nine minutes - once in London, and again in Rome, 3m 34 secs into the Ukraine game. Then he added another to end the evening one behind Gary Lineker’s England tournament record of 10.
Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson came into Euro 2020 in recovery mode, with many grumbling that they shouldn’t be here. Wayne Rooney, David Beckham, Bryan Robson and Ledley King were haunting examples of the dangers of picking players coming back from injury. Maguire missed the Croatia and Scotland games but stepped back in against the Czech Republic as if his ankle had never been hurt. A minute into the second-half in Rome, Maguire rose to meet a perfect Luke Shaw free-kick and headed England’s second.
And consider Shaw, who’s keeping a Champions League winning left-back (Ben Chilwell) out of Southgate’s team and was in the wilderness at Manchester United under Jose Mourinho. Hostilities between Shaw and Mourinho flared again, with Shaw calling out, in the England camp, Mourinho’s apparent obsession with him. He crossed the ball beautifully in Rome. Next season he will be playing at United with Jadon Sancho, another who has had to fight his way into Southgate’s starting XI but was assured from the start in Italy.
Quick feet, elusive running and a reliable end product are measures of Sancho’s talent and maturity. His first tournament start completed a spectacular 48 hours for one of the stars of the Bundesliga. His £73m move to Manchester United was agreed shortly before Bukayo Saka picked up an injury on the training ground and had to drop out of Southgate’s starting XI.
As for Raheem Sterling, his pass to Kane for England’s first goal consolidated his status as the team’s most influential player. From the start it was Sterling making the clearest statement of intent to Andrei Shevchenko’s side, whose defending fell apart and allowed England to score almost at will after a troublesome period of Ukrainian pressure before the interval.
Incredibly, England rattled off a 4-0 win without needing to call on Phil Foden or Jack Grealish, and were able to protect Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips from second bookings by replacing them with Henderson and Jude Bellingham. So much of the selection hoohaa before this tournament was about Grealish and Foden. Many were adamant both should play. Now each faces another struggle to make the team-sheet against Denmark and perhaps beyond.
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For the team spirit to hold up so well with so much competition for places is unprecedented. Somehow Southgate has pulled off the trick of managing expectations through sheer decency, and by proving his plan is working. England are shifting easily between systems from five defenders (with wing-backs) against Germany to a back-four in Rome. His most contentious tactic of playing two screening midfielders, Rice and Phillips, has helped keep the ball out of Jordan Pickford’s net in all five games, or 450 minutes.
Denmark beat Czech Republic authoritatively, with goals by Thomas Delaney and Kasper Dolberg. The Danes are quick, decisive and are playing for a cause: the loss of Christian Eriksen to a cardiac arrest 41 minutes into their campaign. England’s long quest to repeat the ecstasy of 1966 can’t quite match that. But the craving to end 55 years without a trophy - or even an appearance in a final - runs marrow deep. It probably amuses people from other countries. In England itself, it stirs a deep well of yearning, frustration and, yes, embarrassment.
With a typically stylish sign-off, Gary Lineker ended his BBC interview with Southgate by saying: “We’ve got to get to the news. In fact, you are the news.” And it will stay that way, to the Denmark game on Wednesday. You wait all those years for a semi-final to come along - then they all come along at once.
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