A debate has already kicked off over whether Raheem Sterling really was fouled by Joakim Maehle but there is no denying that the right side won
Those contributing to the deafening roar of ‘Don’t take me home, please don’t take me home’ inside Wembley on Wednesday night got their wish as England extended their participation in Euro 2020 by reaching the final of a major tournament for the first time in 55 years with a dramatic 2-1 win over Denmark.
As the chant goes, these fans have never stopped dreaming, but this current crop of players have given them reason to believe that lifting the Henri Delaunay trophy is a real possibility rather than the fanciful idea many thought it was a little under a month ago, as Harry Kane’s penalty in extra time set up a final showdown against Italy on Sunday.
Many of the 66,000 crowd came wearing the retro shirts of heroes gone by: Shearer, Gascoigne and Lineker et al. But for all the near misses and could-have-beens of the past, it is this young generation, this new wave of idols, that could finally end those years of hurt the England fans have sung so passionately and loudly about for years.
The vast majority of those in attendance at Wembley were fired on by the hope and belief that this is England’s year.
The favourable side of the draw, the home advantage, the squad – everything seemed to be falling into place. The party atmosphere started way before kick-off; in fact, it has been going on since England’s opener against Croatia on June 13th.
It has been the tonic this country has needed after a year of lockdown measures. There were scenes of jubilation and deafening cheers as Kane followed up a rebound from his own missed penalty to finally break Denmark’s incredible resistance, which was led by the incredible Kasper Schmeichel.
BBC pundit Micah Richards argued that the pressure of the crowd may have played a part in Dutch referee Danny Makkelie’s decision to award the spot-kick for an alleged foul on Raheem Sterling by Joakim Maehle but, for all of the controversy, Southgate’s side were undeniably worthy victors.
Indeed, had it not been for Schmeichel, the game would never have made its way into extra time.
Kasper Hjulmand’s side gave England food for thought and contributed towards a tense 90 minutes but it was the Leicester goalkeeper who kept them in the game as he pulled off save after save. Kane, Harry Maguire, Sterling, Jack Grealish – the list of players denied by the Dane just kept getting longer as the game wore on.
Anyone predicting this would be an easy game for England did so naively. Denmark did their best to ruin the party. While their mental resilience was rightly praised for the way in which they responded to the dreadful incident involving Christian Eriksen in their opening group game, not enough was said about Denmark’s technical and tactical ability.
It wasn’t just mental strength that saw them book their place in the semi-final and while England were the favourites, the Danes deserved respect as former European champions.
England were invigorated by the electric atmosphere inside the stadium, with Sterling and Kane looking bright early on, but the visitors knew what they needed to do to get in the game. Their pressing forced Southgate’s side into simple mistakes and when Mikkel Damsgaard hit the back of the net with a superb free kick, there was no denying that Denmark warranted a goal.
Those familiar with the Sampdoria attacker had previously described his technique as Ronaldo-esque and it was a set-piece strike that the Portugal international would have been proud of.
It ended England’s run of 691 minutes without conceding and earned Damsgaard a place in the Danish history books as the youngest player to score for the country in the knockout phase of the competition. He only turned 21 last week.
But England have young stars of their own. Saka, favoured on the right over Phil Foden and Jadon Sancho, became the youngest player to start a tournament game at the semi-final stage or later for England, and was a livewire throughout.
Foden, meanwhile, came off the bench and delivered that magic we have become accustomed to seeing him sprinkle in the sky-blue of Manchester City. A delicate spin to get away from Jensen didn’t have the end product but his energy and movement was key in the final stages.
From England’s perspective, there is room for improvement, of course, and the Italian midfield of Jorginho, Marco Verratti and Nicolo Barella will prove to be a bigger test for Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips than what they had to deal with here – but that’s something that can wait for Sunday.
One of the main takeaways for this side is not only how exciting they are going forward but how resolute they are at the back.
They didn’t get that record sixth tournament clean sheet but this was another impressive showing from Maguire and Stones. Damsgaard’s wonder-goal may have beaten Jordan Pickford but England’s back line contained their opponents’ forward line well.
This time there was to be no repeat of the World Cup semi-final heartache of 2018 as Grealish, Jordan Henderson and Phil Foden came off the bench to tip the game firmly in England’s favour.
Denmark were on the ropes, taking punch after punch in extra time, and it was Sterling who effectively produced the knockout blow by winning the penalty that Kane eventually converted to match Lineker’s record of 10 tournament goals for England.
Once that rebound went in, the hysteria and the partying started again. Tops off, limbs everywhere, unbelievable noise. These fans have waited a long time for this moment and they’re going to ensure they savour every last second.
And who knows, maybe this time it really is coming home…