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55 Years On

England 2, Denmark 1.

Euro 2020 Semi-Final

July 7,2021.

By Kevan James

No, it wasn’t a soft penalty – it was a stonewall penalty; absolutely, definitely, every time a penalty. The Referee thought it was a penalty, VAR thought it was a penalty so it was a penalty. You would of course, put money on Harry Kane scoring from one without a goalkeeper getting anywhere near it - except a Schmeichel.

Above - England celebrate Kane's winning goal. Laurence Griffith / Getty Images

In days gone by, when the current one was just a bright-eyed young boy, it was his dad Peter who starred in goal for both Manchester United and Denmark. More than that, Schmeichel Senior was in goal back in 1992 when Denmark won this tournament.

Son Kasper (who was just six when his dad collected a winner’s medal) has inherited much of his father’s talent and while it can be suggested that Kane has taken better penalty kicks than this one, Schmeichel we must remember, plays for FA Cup winners Leicester and knows his Tottenham opponent all too well. So he saved it – almost. Probably the only thing he did wrong all night however was to try and smother the ball and not parry it away. Instead, the ball rebounded outwards, back into open play and in less time than it takes to blink, Kane had swept the ball into the back of the net and England were on their way to their first major tournament final for 55 long years.

This is in many ways, uncharted waters for England. The last time the country’s national team went to a final was of course 1966 in the World Cup, which England hosted and as this time, played their games at Wembley – the exception being that remarkable 4-0 demolition of Ukraine in Rome. Is history about to repeat itself?

In between 1966 and now, England also reached the semi-final of the Euros 30 years on from 1996, again playing all their games at Wembley as hosts, but lost to Germany on penalties after Gareth Southgate – yes the same Gareth Southgate that leads the team as manager now – missed his spot-kick and Andreas Möller sent Germany to the final.

Those who believe in fate might also therefore feel that it is the destiny of both England and their manager to win the tournament this time and finally banish any memories that Southgate might still have over that day. But he and they already have - firstly by taking England to the semi-final of the last World cup, winning a penalty shoot-out on the way; the semi-final of the Nations League and now this final. Whatever the result on Sunday, Gareth Southgate and his youthful England team have created their own memories and their own history.

Kane pounces on the rebound

Laurence Griffiths / Getty Images

They did it the hard way in this semi-final undoubtedly. There are times and games when a team has to win ugly, in the sense that the quality of the opposition is such that there is little chance of a free-flowing, all-out attacking extravaganza. And Denmark had quality. For a nation that still has just the one title to their name, that Euro win in 1992, and one of the smaller countries around, they have always produced good footballers. A number of this team are familiar to football followers in England apart from Kasper Schmeichel, as they are elsewhere in the European game so they were not to be taken lightly.

Nevertheless, England set about them from the start and dominated the early possession but one of the first tasks of any team playing away is to settle in to the game, not concede an early goal and quieten the crowd. This Denmark did rather well and they are one of a number of teams that are dangerous if free-kicks are given away anywhere near the penalty area. So it proved in this encounter. Luke Shaw, otherwise as impressive as he has been in the other games, needlessly hauled down a red shirt and Mikkel Daamsgard’s curling free-kick was a thing of beauty, even though Jordan Pickford got a finger-tip to it.

The lead spurred Denmark, Højbjerg and Dolberg had opportunities but the test for any team is how they respond when things don’t go well. Despite the bright start, for a time England looked second best but kept their composure, didn’t panic and just nine minutes after Daamsgard had struck, a run from Saka and a challenge from Sterling saw the Danish captain Simon Kjær put the ball into his own net.

Left - Southgate celebrates

Tom Jenkins / The Guardian

It was unlucky for Denmark, the reverse for England but one can make one’s own luck in some ways and apart from the twenty minutes or so when Daamsgard had put the Danes ahead, England were in control of the game. They were patient, content to go sideways or backwards and keep the ball if nothing was on otherwise. This can be frustrating to watch at times but the object here is not only to keep the ball but also to lure the opponents out of position. One other aspect to keep in mind is that in tournaments like these, extra-time is always a possibility so players – and for that matter coaches – need to know how to pace themselves. That’s why there appeared on occasion little movement up front for England. Still having the energy to keep going after 90 minutes and on into extra time can be a priceless trait and England did it better than Denmark. That’s why Raheem Sterling was able to keep causing consternation among the Danish defence every time he ran at them and why they gave away a penalty after yet another run from the Manchester City man.

Denmark might well feel that they lost the game rather than England winning it – an own goal, a penalty saved but scored from the rebound and they had taken the lead. But teams that reach finals sometimes have to feed on scraps as England did in this game. Sometimes you have to win ugly.

So to Sunday – England are in the final, Italy await, and with a day extra to recover from their exertions against Spain. This game will be the toughest test for Gareth Southgate and this young England team but hoodoos have been broken and spirits lifted for English football fans so I think I’ll say that first line again - England…are in the final.

© Kevan James 2021


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