It was not a tense night. It wasn’t 90 anxious minutes. In fact, this didn’t look much like England at all. By contrast, having controlled the first half, England were rampant in the second, advancing to a 4-0 win over Ukraine in Rome and a place in the Euro 2020 semi-finals against Denmark in the friendly confines of the Stade de Wembley. Since Alf Ramsey’s team continued to win the World Cup in 1966 by reaching the quarter-finals of the 1968 European Championship, England have not reached the semi-finals of successive tournaments. In his sober and dignified way, Gareth Southgate is making history.
This was such a comfortable victory, secured so early, that Southgate was able to eliminate Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, who both carried yellow cards. But there were positives everywhere. Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane were brilliant. Jadon Sancho, in his first start, offered a threat. Mason Mount, back from self-isolation due to COVID-19 protocols, was vigilant and alert. Luke Shaw was a constant threat to the left. The defense kept another clean sheet, the first team that any team had kept five in a row at the start of a European Championship.
Barely four minutes had passed when Kane scored the first of the day’s two goals. So apparently in a bad mood for much of the tournament, that was his second goal in just six minutes (plus injury time at the end of Germany’s goal). The main credit, however, must go to Sterling, who jumped from the left and delivered a perfectly weighted pass for Kane to run and lift Ukrainian goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan. Sterling is a player who, when he is down, tends to waver and muffle the pass or final shot. It’s safe to say that he’s in great shape right now.
He probed from the start until the moment he was withdrawn in the 20th minute of the second half, retaining Ukrainian right-back Oleksandr Karavayev, who had been a vital part of Ukraine’s attacking game against Sweden. Sterling’s slightly disappointing form at Man City towards the end of the season had led to questions about whether he should start early in the tournament; if any of those doubts persisted – and most, surely, would have disappeared against Germany – they could not have survived the first half.
With the England press doing well, Southgate’s team seemed to be in control for a long time. Rice and Sancho, inside from the right by Bukayo Saka, both had good efforts saved by Bushchan. But the dynamics changed after Serhiy Kryvtsov was forced to retire due to injury in the 36th minute. He forced coach Andriy Shevchenko to change form from 5-3-2 to 4-3-3 that he had used in the group stage. , incorporating Viktor Tsygankov. That meant there was more room for Sterling and Sancho to attack, but it also meant that Ukraine offered a greater threat.
But within a minute of the start of the second half, England scored a second goal. At the World Cup three years ago, England had been a major threat from set pieces, and until now it had been a small concern in the Euro that that had not been the case again. But Shaw’s launch from a free kick down the left was perfect, and Harry Maguire, as he had done in the World Cup quarter-finals against Sweden, scored with a header. The fourth also came from a corner kick, led by Jordan Henderson, who scored his first goal for England in his 62nd international game, albeit only after an impressive volley from Kane had been deflected.
Southgate is in one of those golden periods as a manager when all his decisions seem to go wrong. Others may not have even included Maguire in the squad due to his recent injury, or they could have stayed with Tyrone Mings after the tournament got off to a good start. And then there was Shaw, who was by no means an obvious first choice ahead of Ben Chilwell. He excelled against Germany, and was excellent again on Saturday, crossing for third as well. This time it was the English press that created the opportunity. Possession was won at the midline, Sterling led the charge and Kane delivered the knockout blow. At 3-0, the game was over and England could relax, play freely and go for more.
England’s only trip in this competition is done. After a group stage in London, the semi-finals and final of the tournament return to Wembley. The semi-final marks a rematch of a Nations League match against Denmark in October 2020, when the only goal was scored on a penalty by Christian Eriksen, whose presence has loomed over this competition after his near-death experience in the first game of the Danes. Inevitably, the semi-final will also bring more comparisons to 1996: the loss to Germany and Southgate’s vital and decisive failure from the penalty spot. A quarter of a century later, perhaps England’s manager can banish that trauma once and for all, and the conversation may move on to emulating England’s triumph of 30 years earlier.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.