England Into Semis After Rampant Win in Rome

Getty Images/Alessandro Garofalo

Ukraine 0-4 England

  • England reached the semi-finals of Euro 2020 as they thrashed Ukraine in the quarter-final
  • Goals from Harry Maguire, Jordan Henderson and two from Harry Kane sealed a famous win

Well, the imposter syndrome is only getting worse. It isn’t usually England who steadily improve as a tournament progresses, who can rest players for the semi-final having secured their place after 50 minutes. England are growing into Euro 2020, but they’re also growing as a group of young men who can now win important football matches when the pressure is very much on. That was always the problem with England, you see, they won matches, but never the right ones. And never convincingly. This was convincing.

Murmurs ahead of kick-off suggested that Jadon Sancho — whose big-money move to Manchester United is now all but finalised — would come in to start his first game of the tournament. It was a big gamble, but Sancho made an impact and vindicated yet another one of Gareth Southgate’s surprise selections. Yet before Sancho could even get settled into the game at the spectacular Stadio Olimpico in Rome, he was celebrating an England goal.

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Luke Shaw fed Raheem Sterling, whose goals are a major reason why England were even here in Rome at all. Sterling scurried away from a crowded box, before slotting a perfectly timed, perfectly weighted pass through to Harry Kane, who he had spotted was just off the shoulder of a flat-footed Ukraine defence. It was a show of incredible vision; the finish to match was duly applied. Kane reached out his long right leg and lifted the ball past the goalkeeper Heorhiy Bushchan smartly.

The sight of Kane wheeling away to celebrate in just the fourth minute settled nerves, but it also seemed to evidence the point that a lack of service to the Tottenham man was a major problem for England early in the tournament. A striker will often look sluggish and isolated if they’re not given the ball. Sterling did just that, and England’s captain delivered to mark the ideal start.

Ukraine were in the quarter-finals of the tournament for a reason, and offered a threat on the counterattack all night, irrespective of the score. Striker Roman Yaremchuk of Gent forced Jordan Pickford into a save down low to his right — a reminder of the stature of England’s opponents. Pickford told EnglandFootball.org in the week that he feels in as good form for England as he’s ever been, having kept his sixth clean-sheet in a row against Germany. “I feel I’m in good form and in a good place,” he said. “For me, it’s just about being consistent and keeping the levels high and keep performing for England. And keeping clean-sheets is a bonus.”

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“Games against Germany at home at Wembley in a major tournament, you don’t get many of them,” he acknowledged. “You’ve got to enjoy the moment, but it’s a quick turnaround and [we now] focus on Ukraine.” When called upon, he did look focused.

But England wouldn’t need him again until much later. Frankly, until they had already cruised to victory. Kane headed over and Rice forced Bushchan into a nervous parry as Southgate’s players tried to double the lead ahead of half-time. But Ukraine enjoyed their best spell of possession as the half wore on, helped by their switch from 3-5-2 to a flat back-four following the injured Serhii Kryvtsov’s replacement by Viktor Tsygankov. There was never the threat of real danger to England’s goal though, and the sides went down the tunnel just one goal apart.

They then effectively came out two apart. Within a matter of seconds after the restart, Kane had been felled and Shaw had lined up his free-kick delivery. His beautifully flighted ball came arcing down, but got no further than the slabhead of Harry Maguire. England’s domineering centre-back — a mustang in the mould of the Brazilian centre-back Lúcio, as Jürgen Klinsmann calls him — flung his head onto the dipping ball and then watched as it thumped into the corner.

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England’s gentle giant had been anything but. He’d scored his second goal in as many major tournament quarter-finals, evoking memories of his wonderful bullet-header against Sweden at this stage at the 2018 World Cup. Sterling looked almost in shock as he followed an ecstatic Maguire to the corner flag. You wanted to tell him, yes, Raheem, you and your team really are booking a place in a second successive semi-final. This was not a dream. Dreamy, more like.

Within five minutes, the rampant Three Lions had knocked in their third. Mason Mount hurried forward and spread wide to Sterling. The Premier League champion flicked the ball deftly for the overlapping Shaw, who took no hesitation before floating in a scrumptious first-time cross. Kane rose highest to head the ball down between the goalkeeper’s legs. Ukraine were all tied up in knots.

Southgate rang the changes, sensing this was as good a moment as any to remove the risk of suspension by replacing those on yellows. Resting his best players also came into it.  Jordan Henderson, Jude Bellingham, Kieran Trippier and Marcus Rashford were all on.

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Asked about the statistical anomaly of never having scored for England in 60 caps, Henderson told EnglandFootball.org in the week that: “It’s coming. I can feel it!” Well, it did come. That was evidently to the relief of Henderson himself who celebrated like a man possessed, but also to the relief of the nation. No-one can bare to sit through any more of his missed penalties.

England looked to preserve their energy levels and see out this contest, which was becoming less and less of a contest with every second that ticked by. Yet old habits die hard. Southgate’s England were always going to continue pressing, rotating play, and chipping away at the feet of Ukraine’s increasingly slow and lethargic players. From a Mount corner, Henderson steered a header down into the ground and past Bushchan. The closeness of this England group was noticeable as every player on the pitch enjoyed Henderson’s special moment.

It says a lot about Harry Kane’s goalscoring instinct that you could have blinked and suddenly he’s caught up with Sterling as England’s top marksman so far in this tournament. With 37 England goals and counting, off he went to save his invaluable body for Wednesday’s Wembley semi-final against Denmark. Dominic Calvert-Lewin replaced him, only to spend the entirety of his cameo watching on as England passed around at ambling pace and Ukraine trotted around devoid of all remnants of their footballing mojo that had carried them here via a win over Sweden.

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There is a certain irony in the fact that all the talk before the tournament had been about England’s stellar right-back options, and yet it’s their left-back Luke Shaw who has just equalled David Beckham for most assists in a single Euros for England. And for all their supposed weakness at the back and down the centre of the pitch, Southgate’s goalkeeper, defence and midfield pivots have brought calm rather than the storm.

Everything seems to be falling for England at the moment. This was their biggest ever win at a European Championships, and the first time they’ve scored four in the knockout stages of a major tournament since the World Cup final of 1966.

Away from the noise and the hype, England got the job done with the utmost professionalism and, dare it be said, a bit of a sheen on the score-line. Onwards and upwards. ‘Upwards’ — because there is still even better football to find. And because this job isn’t done yet. Back to the noise they go — but back with a bang.

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