For England, it was always about finding the moment, the one to destroy a close match, to go through so much negative tournament history, especially at the hands of Germany. And for extended periods, as the tension rose to almost unbearable levels at a raucous and emotional Wembley, the home crowd wondered if it would come.
Gareth Southgate, who had reverted to a 3-4-3 system in search of a safe platform, had asked for a hero. And, with 15 minutes to go, he found one. Once again, it was Raheem Sterling.
After his goals in the group stage win against Croatia and the Czech Republic, he started a play that saw Harry Kane find substitute Jack Grealish, who played for Luke Shaw. Sterling kept running, and when Shaw crossed, he was there to wreak havoc with the finishing touch.
It would always be about moments. Germany have wasted a couple but, with the game at stake, they had the big one. England’s defense was caught squarely, following a poor back pass from Sterling, and when Kai Havertz released Thomas Müller he went one-on-one with Jordan Pickford and had to score. He dragged his shot past the post.
England felt only their second knockout victory at a European Championship – the first was against Spain on penalties in 1996 – and the end of a landslide sequence of German tournament dominance. Prior to this, they had won each of the four previous encounters in the knockout stages of the grand finals.
It was Harry Kane’s turn to make sure and after his struggles in front of goal it felt incredibly sweet to him and everyone with England at heart. Once again the incision came from the left, Shaw found Grealish and the center tailored to Kane, who converted the hunched headbutt.
For Southgate, there was a personal atonement for his infamous penalty foul here against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final, but furthermore, he had a feeling that England had located the ignition key. A strongly partisan atmosphere had throbbed throughout and, at the end of it all and with the tie for the final having opened, it was impossible to ignore the sense of possibility.
It was an epic occasion and it had started for England with a heartbreaking ten-minute opening, when Germany announced their threat. Southgate’s team was locked in, the ball coming back again and again, with Germany able to run on England’s backline, most notably when Leon Goretzka climbed to the edge of the area where he was brought down by Declan Rice, who was booked. When Havertz slammed the free kick into the wall, it was added to a foul for England.
There were mistakes on the England ball in the first run, a collective nervousness and Germany seemed softer, their three forwards turned easily, finding spaces between the lines. Havertz glowed with menace, while Müller was hard to pin down.
England took hold of the feet, with Bukayo Saka bringing a few notes of clarity to the right, a bravery on the ball, even if it was too frantic for much of the first half for Southgate’s liking. The concern from England’s point of view related to how they would retain possession, how they could dictate the pace and, more specifically, whether they could use it accurately.
Sterling extended Manuel Neuer with a long shot in the 16th minute and the moment came when Kieran Trippier crossed for Harry Maguire, after being played by the energetic Kalvin Phillips, only for the midfielder to head high.
Kane fed on the leftovers once again, although he almost found one in injury time of the first half. Sterling burst into the area and, when the ball broke kindly for the captain, he looked like the favorite to score. Mats Hummels, however, stole the ball from him.
Germany also repented before the break; the biggest of them came after Havertz released Timo Werner over the side of John Stones in the 32nd minute. The angle was tight, but Werner still had a lot of target to aim for. Pickford made a vital block.
England was always going to suffer; the home crowd knew it and they were looking for something, anything, to rally around: a tackle from Phillips, a sprint from Sterling, Maguire coming off defense with the ball. It seemed as if the Southgate players were driven by passion; they needed composure.
Havertz rose above the tumult. He worked Pickford straight after the break with a brutal blow from the edge of the area and every time he advanced, the alarm bells rang loudly for England.
Southgate had stayed true to himself with his lineup and there was a kind of bravery in his thought processes. The populist thing he would have done would have been to inject a greater fantasy and start, say, Grealish and / or Phil Foden, but he felt it would have been silly.
Better to mirror Germany’s back three system, to prioritize safety and set up a series of one-on-one duels. Southgate backed his players to be better than their rivals. But as the minutes of the second half ticked by, it was clear he had to turn around. England needed more impetus.
The crowd had started calling out for Grealish in the 55th minute and they would fulfill their wish, the playmaker advancing in a peer-to-peer exchange for Saka and Sterling moving to the right. Southgate did not want to abandon his structure.
Then it happened. Southgate’s idea behind the system was to put Shaw high on the left and how he made his incision count, with Sterling doing the rest. Kane’s goal ignited one of the biggest sporting parties in some time.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism