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A touch of fortune – but Southgate gets it right again as Three Lions head for dream final

Written by on 08/07/2021

If it helps to have had your mettle tested on your way to the promised land, England’s semi-final was perfect.

They did it the hard way against Denmark, but the victory was well deserved – 21 attempts at goal, compared with six for their opponents, tells a story.

So did an early incident: Chelsea’s Andreas Christiansen ballooned an attempted pass into the crowd. Denmark seemed more affected by the occasion than Gareth Southgate’s team.

Image: Mikkel Damsgaard’s stunning free kick gave the Danes an early lead…
Kane scored the follow-up after his spot kick was saved in extra time
Image: but Harry Kane produced the goods again – despite a stroke of luck

England were only really rattled for nine minutes after Mikkel Damsgaard’s fabulous free kick that threatened victory for the team ranked 10th in the world against their fourth-rated opponents.

Then captain Harry Kane did what he has been doing all season for Tottenham – proving his worth as a creator as well as a scorer of goals.

His perfectly weighted pass sent 19-year-old Bukayo Saka clear to provide the cross that Denmark’s captain Simon Kjaer turned into his own net.

The decisive penalty in extra time had fortune smiling on it.

More on Euro 2020

The award seemed generous for a perceived foul on Raheem Sterling, and Kane’s kick was saved before he gleefully seized on the rebound.

Image: England’s remarkable young team will have home advantage again in the final

But Southgate got his tactics right, even to the extent of saving multiple substitutions for extra time, when Danish legs were clearly tiring.

Denmark’s bandwagon – with worldwide support after their recovery from Christian Eriksen’s heart failure – was finally halted.

Now the momentum is with England, and they will need it in the final against an Italy team unbeaten in 33 matches.

But the nation has learned to trust Southgate, as his players do.

Many have been with him a long time.

England fans were in ecstasy in Trafalgar Square
Image: England fans were in ecstasy in Trafalgar Square after the final whistle

The first occasion he and his assistant Steve Holland took charge of the England under-21 team, eight years ago, Kane was a substitute.

When he got the main job, a few months after a miserable Euro 2016 exit under Roy Hodgson against Iceland – Iceland! – critics said he was an FA yes man, and too nice.

He is not. Ask Jack Grealish, on as substitute to fan acclaim in the semi-final but unceremoniously removed after Kane’s goal when Southgate decided Kieran Trippier’s defensive qualities would be more beneficial.

Fans climbed on a bus in Piccadilly Circus
Image: Jubilant fans climbed on a bus in London’s Piccadilly Circus

But he cares. He will have talked to Grealish afterwards, just as he has made a particular point of praising the players in his squad who have not got on the pitch at all.

His more open approach has made for a happier squad – in stark contrast to the boot camp Fabio Capello ran at the 2010 World Cup.

Southgate trusts his players – but clamps down hard if lines are crossed, as when Phil Foden and Mason Greenwood were sent home last year from a trip to Iceland for breaching COVID rules.

The club-based cliques that dogged England squads under Sven Goran Eriksson and others are a thing of the past, and so is the fear of penalties, thanks to victory in a 2018 World Cup shootout against Colombia.

Jordan Pickford overtook Gordon Banks' clean-sheet record by five minutes
Image: Jordan Pickford overtook Gordon Banks’ clean sheet record by five minutes

Good staff help too, including not just Holland and coach Chris Powell, but also sports psychologist Ian Mitchell, recruited after his contribution to Wales’s march to the Euro 2016 semi-finals.

All will have a part to play as England build up to the country’s biggest sporting occasion since 1966.

There are significant parallels with the team managed by Sir Alf Ramsey.

Current goalkeeper Jordan Pickford overtook a record set by England’s legendary World Cup-winning goalkeeper Gordon Banks by five minutes – reaching 726 minutes without conceding an international goal before Denmark struck here.

1966 World cup final. Pic: AP
Image: Southgate’s team are a match away from banishing the ghost of 1966. Pic: AP

In 1966, as now, England began slowly, with a dire 0-0 draw against Uruguay, and got stronger as the tournament progressed.

Like Southgate, Sir Alf had his critics for his pragmatic style of play. It was revolutionary in the 1960s to play without wingers, but he promised the “wingless wonders” would beat the world on home soil.

They did, thanks above all to a goal scorer who didn’t even play in the first three matches. Geoff Hurst scored on his World Cup debut in the quarter final, and the rest was hysteria.

Will England find an unlikely hero on Sunday, with the nation – and the world – watching?

Italy don’t think so. “Now there is only one more centimetre to go,” said veteran defender Leonardo Bonucci after their semi-final victory over Spain.

Maybe. But the advantage of playing at Wembley could be key, as it was for Bobby Moore and his 1966 heroes.

The end of 55 years of hurt, at long last? Football coming home? It’s no good saying whisper it softly, is it? But it is starting to seem written in the stars.

 Sky News

© Sky News 2020

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