New Territory for New England — The Final Awaits

Getty Images/Frank Augstein

England 2-1 Denmark (AET)

  • England reached the final of EURO 2020 thanks to victory over Denmark in extra-time
  • They booked their place at Sunday’s Wembley finale thanks to Harry Kane’s late rebound goal

These are the days of our lives. No-one knows if there will ever be more like them. Gareth Southgate is so composed and so articulate, when the rest of the nation is caught up in the mayhem of it all, in the absurdity of it all. England are in their first ever European Championships final ­— their first major tournament final for 55 years. They booked their place with the pace of the French, the passing of the Spanish, the maturity of the Italians. They’ll meet Italy on Sunday.

Denmark were riding a wave of emotion in this tournament, following the horrific scenes of Christian Eriksen’s collapse in their first match. Erisken once ran the show here at Wembley — for Tottenham Hotspur as they spent a period here as guest tenants. England were very much the tenants tonight, but Eriksen trusted that in his notable absence, his proud nation could exceed all expectations even further. They won Euro 92 without having qualified. This was their next generation’s shot at glory.

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They showed their cohesion and their guile in the early exchanges, as England tried and failed to ease themselves into the contest. There had been no English arrogance from the camp at any point in this tournament, but especially ahead of this fixture. The Danes posed England their toughest challenge yet, ranked just six places below Southgate’s side, and having scored more than them so far at these finals.

England were here at Wembley largely because of their defensive brilliance, which has shocked even the most fervid of fans. No goals against in their first five matches was a new Euros record by any team. But England were always going to have to face a certain level of adversity at some point if they were to go all the way. Here was the adversity, provided by a wondrous free-kick from the baby-faced Mikkel Damsgaard. He was born a day after the final of Euro 2000, but showed no lack of experience as he fired the ball up and down with enough power to beat Jordan Pickford. Denmark had been on top and deserved their goal. England players signalled to each other to stay calm and bide their time.

But Harry Kane was anything but. The eventual man of the match crossed for Raheem Sterling, whose Wembley homecoming has been one of the stories of this tournament. A fourth goal of the tournament looked certain, but Kasper Schmeichel grew to the size of a Nordic mountain, blocking against all odds when the goal was gaping.

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Before there was time to think of what might have been, the miss was already immaterial. Kane split the lines of Denmark’s defence superbly as he caught Bukayo Saka’s run in-behind. Saka squared, Sterling lurked, and Simon Kjær could do nothing to prevent Saka’s sumptuous low cross flying in off his leg. England were on level terms, behind for only nine minutes. That was how to deal with jeopardy. Half-time. Deep breath. Big 45 needed.

Harry Maguire was incensed after the restart as he was booked for what looked like nothing more than a fairly won aerial duel. Kane stepped in to calm the big centre-back down. Then Maguire forced an excellent save from Schmeichel who, at full stretch, clawed his header to safety.

Denmark came, then England came, then Denmark came again. The match was hanging in the balance precariously. Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were freaks of nature in the midfield for England once again. Their stamina is something to behold. Phillips leathered the ball from range, and missed. Deep into stoppage-time, he did so again. Jack Grealish was on for England, but not even he and his tumbles to the turf could help the hosts nick it. Extra-time required. The nation asked itself whether yet another semi-final would have to end in anguish.

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Kasper Hjulmand’s side had made all five of his substitutions. The Danes had spent large parts of the game chasing England down, tracking the mercurial Sterling, and battling physically with one Harry at one end, and another at the other. England sensed their moment. They had the players, the legs, the quality, and the remaining subs to dominate the extra half-an-hour. They could kill the Danish dream here, and right the many decades’ worth of wrongs with it.

Jordan Henderson replaced the exhausted Rice. His best buddy Mason Mount’s night was also done. Phil Foden offered fresh legs and fresh ideas.

But, at moments of need, call on Old Reliable. Sterling had one more moment of magic to show the 67,000 visitors to his back garden. He sped into the box, weaved between the bemused Joakim Mæhle and Mathias Jensen, felt contact, and hit the deck. Danny Makkelie pointed to the spots. Was it a penalty? Wasn’t it? Was it? Wasn’t it? The debates will no doubt go on and on for decades to come. It was given. England had been given their helping hand.

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Kane had cut a lonely old figure up front for much of the match. Rarely was he serviced — an issue Southgate must still sort — but he was in the team for moments like this. Schmeichel the penalty-saving expert versus Kane, the world’s best penalty-taker. With little conviction on the kick, the great Dane got down well to save.

But wait. What was this? A touch of luck — in an England semi-final? Southgate’s team really are breaking down barriers, and now with the help of good fortune at just the right time. Schmeichel couldn’t gather so the ball rolled back into Kane’s path. Cue the simplest of finishes, followed by the best moment the New Wembley is yet to see.

Kane set off for the corner flag, Foden followed him unable to contain his raw elation. It was pandemonium across the country — and then it was quickly back to default: tense. Try as they might, Denmark couldn’t hold onto the ball for long enough. England were just too savvy as they ran the clock down, winning free-kicks, winning headers, and passing comfortably and safely between themselves. There was no ‘hit it into the stands’ about this. England have matured.

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Once Southgate had embraced Hjulmand, he embraced the England entourage one by one. But he doesn’t see them as that. He’d taken off Grealish in extra-time having only brought him on after 70 minutes. The team is what matters. Grealish understood the bigger picture, telling Southgate he didn’t care now they’re in the final. All the way from the club doctor to the kitman to press officer to the players, this is England. England was bouncing.

Into the final head brave new England with their brave new plan: prepare for tournaments properly, avoid the circus. They were walking a tightrope for most of the game; an error either way would have proved decisive. No error needed. Southgate deserved his luck — he’d waited long enough. England found their winner.

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