England, at last, go the distance. They finally have plans for final day, stay at Wembley, dream away. Their most enthralling and difficult game of the tournament fittingly sets up the country’s biggest day in 55 years. England are at last back in a final, for the first time since 1966, and a day where the echoes of that date will be all around.
Denmark’s remarkable story ends here, although there were times where it felt like they’d never give in. Their emotional wave inevitably subsided, amid some of the greatest exertions this tournament has ever seen, to leave them standing with bloody-minded defiance. It wasn’t their legs that gave way after travelling across Europe and back, but Raheem Sterling’s. He went down for the penalty that eventually won the game, Harry Kane scoring after his initial effort had been supremely saved by Kasper Schmeichel. It was his fourth goal of the tournament and his most important ever for England – until possibly Sunday.
That’s the exhilarating prospect that lies in wait, against a fine Italian team. It is set up to be final for the ages, and just maybe England’s greatest day.
If the nature of the winning goal felt so innocuous amid scenes of such momentousness, though, few could say England didn’t deserve it. The winning goal had been coming long before extra-time.
Many might fairly put that down to the advantage of playing so many games at Wembley and the lack of physical toll on Gareth Southgate’s side, but they overcame another two psychological barriers.
The first was the very level itself, as England at last won a semi-final after four successive failures. The second was recovering from a set-back, and a game that for once wasn’t going their way.
England went behind for the first time in the tournament. A few players had moments of doubt, above all Jordan Pickford. The midfield looked more ponderous than at any previous point in this tournament. That could be an issue against the fluidity of the Italian central players. There were also the inevitable nerves in the final few minutes, even when ahead against an exhausted Denmark.
That was natural given the scale of the events. The raucous celebrations at full-time revealed that. For all the coldness of Southgate’s calculation throughout this campaign, it has created an emotional wave of its own, amid the weight of so much history.
Solutions for these can wait until Thursday. This is a moment of celebration for now, and revelling in the team’s mental resolve. Even Pickford produced a fine save in those tense last few minutes. He’d recovered. It was all part of the story of one of England’s greatest days, if not necessarily their greatest games.
There had been signs that Pickford wasn’t completely comfortable even before the goal. He had fumbled one cross, and kicked one ball straight out of play. In short, he’d lost his bearings. That was true for the eventual goal, although more should be put down to the artistry of Damsgaard, and the craft of Denmark’s approach.
Just before the forward stepped up, there had been a gap in the wall, that Pickford was able to see through. By the time Damsgaard was striking the ball, though, all of Jannik Vestergaard, Simon Kjaer and Andreas Christensen had moved across. Pickford couldn’t see properly, and didn’t move properly. It’s still debatable whether Damsgaard’s supreme strike could have been saved. The whip on it in real-team was rapturous, as it moved again just before it got to the keeper.
Mikkel Damsgaard gave Denmark the lead
It was still conspicuous that Southgate immediately told his goalkeeper to calm down. There was an irony that, just four minutes before that, Pickford had set a new England record for longest run without conceding a goal. By the time that 721 minutes that beat Gordon Banks became 725, though, you could say a goal was due.
A key question was meanwhile queued up. How would England react? This was their first setback of the tournament. There had been the argument that it might fatally unsettle them, because they were unused to it. That argument was wrong.
England responded with their best spell of the game, Bukayo Saka showing what happens when you just get him on the ball.
It was his reverse pass that released Kane to set up the first Sterling chance, only for Kane to return the favour for the second.
Kjaer couldn’t deal with the delivery, and the ball was deflected into his own net.
The back-and-forth of goals saw it become a proper back-and-forth of a game, and a properly absorbing international semi-final. That wasn’t just because of the evolution of events, though. It was also down to the midfields, and the real lack of truly controlling quality in either.
It meant that both sides were playing in bursts, England admittedly with more of them. There were periods where it felt like a more jaded Denmark tried to take the sting out of the game by staying down that bit longer after knocks. They had travelled more in this tournament, and had been through more.
There was still a durability there that made it difficult for England to play through them, the better moments coming from individual impetus – as with one Mason Mount run – and set-pieces. Harry Maguire forced a strong hand from Schmeichel with one header.
This was of course the cue for Jack Grealish. It was England’s only sub of the 90, which might have been surprising, but pointed to how fresh they were compared to Denmark.
Their levels of exhaustion seemed to increase exponentially with every minute. Being forced back became just sitting back, as defiant and strong challenges became desperate and loose ones.
Harry Kane scored the winning goal in extra-time
The gaps were appearing. Grealish conjured one of the biggest with that 96th-minute pass, only for Kane – of all players – to completely miss-hit it. As the game went into extra-time, it felt like it was just becoming a matter of time.
The match devolved into a barrage. It was effort after effort, save after save, block after block. Something had to give. Sterling’s legs gave way. Kane – eventually – delivered. Wembley exploded. These were scenes that hadn’t been seen in some time.
Whatever happens next, England are in a final. They’ve gone the distance in a tournament. That is something that hasn’t been said for 55 years. They will be hoping to say something else on Sunday, that they are champions of Europe. One day remains, one step remains.
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