It wasn’t a tense night. It wasn’t an anxiety-ridden 90 minutes. In fact, this didn’t look much like England at all. Rather, having controlled the first half, England was rampant in the second, cruising to a 4-0 over Ukraine win in Rome and a place in the Euro 2020 semifinals against Denmark at the friendly confines of Wembley Stadium. Not since Alf Ramsey’s side followed up winning the World Cup in 1966 by reaching the last four of the 1968 European Championship has England reached successive tournament semifinals. In his soberly dignified way, Gareth Southgate is making history.
This was such a comfortable win, secured so early, that Southgate was able to take off Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, both of whom were carrying yellow cards. But there were positives everywhere. Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane were brilliant. Jadon Sancho, in his first start, offered a threat. Mason Mount, back after his self-isolation due to COVID-19 protocols, was sharp and alert. Luke Shaw was a constant menace on the left. The defense kept another clean sheet, the first team any side had kept five in a row at the start of a European Championship.
Just four minutes had gone when Kane struck for his first of two goals on the day. So apparently out of sorts for so much of the tournament, that was his second goal in just six minutes (plus injury-time at the end of the Germany goal). The major credit, though, must go to Sterling, jinking in from the left and playing a perfectly weighted pass for Kane to run on and lift over Ukraine goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan. Sterling is a player who when out of sorts has a tendency to dither and muff the final pass or shot. It’s safe to say he is in very good form at the moment.
He probed from the start to the moment he was withdrawn 20 minutes into the second half, pinning back Ukraine right wingback Oleksandr Karavayev, who had been such a vital part of Ukraine’s attacking play against Sweden. Sterling’s slightly disappointing form at Man City toward the end of the season had led to questions about whether he should start at the beginning of the tournament; if any of those doubts remained—and most, surely, had disappeared against Germany—they could not have survived the first half.
With England’s press working well, for a long time Southgate’s side looked in control. Rice and Sancho, in on the right for Bukayo Saka, both had good efforts saved by Bushchan. But the dynamic changed after Serhiy Kryvtsov was forced off by injury after 36 minutes. He forced manager Andriy Shevchenko to change the shape from 5-3-2 to the 4-3-3 he had used in the group stage, bringing on Viktor Tsygankov. That meant there was more space for Sterling and Sancho to attack, but it also meant Ukraine offered more of a threat.
But within a minute of the start of the second half, England had a second goal. At the World Cup three years ago, England had been a major threat from set plays, and it had been a slight concern so far in the Euros that that had not been the case again. But Shaw’s delivery from a free kick on the left was perfect, and Harry Maguire, as he had in the World Cup quarterfinal against Sweden, scored with a thumping header. The fourth also came from a corner, headed in by Jordan Henderson, who scored his first England goal in his 62nd cap—although only after a stunning volley from Kane had been pushed wide.
Southgate is on one of those golden periods as a manager when it seems like every decision of his comes off. Others might not have even have included Maguire in the squad given his recent injury, or might have stuck with Tyrone Mings after he began the tournament well. And then there was Shaw, who was by no means an obvious first choice ahead of Ben Chilwell. He excelled against Germany, and was superb again on Saturday, crossing for the third as well. This time it was England’s press that created the chance. Possession was won on the halfway line, Sterling led the charge and Kane applied the coup de grâce. At 3–0 the game was over, and England could relax, play freely and go for more.
England’s one away trip in this competition is done. After a group stage that took place in London, the semifinals and the final of the tournament are back at Wembley. The semifinal marks a rematch of a Nations League meeting vs. Denmark from October 2020, when the lone goal was scored on a penalty by Christian Eriksen, whose presence has loomed over this competition after his near-death experience in the Danes' opener. Inevitably, the semifinal will also draw further comparisons to 1996: the defeat to Germany and Southgate’s vital and decisive failure from the penalty spot. A quarter of a century on, perhaps the England manager can banish that trauma once and for all, and the talk can turn instead to emulating England's title triumph of 30 years earlier.
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