By Andrew Warshaw
July 8 – While Danish coach Kasper Hjulmand was understandably bitter at the way his battling team went out of Euro 2020 following the award of a highly dubious extra time penalty, playing to survive – as his team had been forced to do – can come at a cost.
As neutral fans everywhere rued the cruel way the underdogs lost 2-1 to England after leaving an indelible mark on the competition, Harry Kane stabbing home a lucky rebound after his spot kick was saved by Kasper Schmeichel, there is certainly an argument to suggest that the best two teams over the last four weeks have reached Sunday’s eagerly anticipated final.
Nearly every top side at some stage has showed both strength and weakness but Italy and England have proved particularly resilient. Both have had their moments of luck but no team wins a major competition without it.
Combine that with pragmatism, togetherness, teamwork, individual brilliance and no little skill in all areas of the pitch and it’s no surprise that Italy, unbeaten now for 33 games stretching back to September, 2018, and England, with home advantage, have ended up in the final which promises to be an intriguing climax to a competition that has captivated the entire continent in its one-off pan-European format, despite all the difficulties presented by Covid.
For England, the nation that lays claim to being the inventor of football, there is finally the chance to erase 55 years of hurt and doomed expectations after reaching its first major final since winning the 1966 World Cup.
Before 60,000 passionate fans and with the nation coming to a standstill, England came from behind to cancel out Mikkel Damsgaard’s stunning freekick and went on to dominate the game after an awkward first 45 minutes, clinching victory, however fortuitously, in the 104th minute – just as another dreaded penalty shootout loomed.
“We dug deep and we got there when it mattered,” said a relieved Kane. “We are at home in the final, what a feeling.”
Most of the plaudits afterwards were directed towards manager Gareth Southgate, whose missed penalty ironically sent England out of Euro 96, also at the semi-final stage.
“We told the players that at some point we have to show resilience and come back from adversity, and we did that tonight,” Southgate said.
“The most pleasant thing is that we gave our fans and our country a fantastic evening and the journey will take four more days. We said we want to create memories. I have said to the youngsters: ‘It is not always like that’.”
So many thoughts will of course be spared for Denmark who had become everyone’s second favourite team following the anguish and grief of Christian Eriksen’s opening match cardiac arrest. Their under-rated players, many of whom perform in Europe’s top leagues but without the squad depth of England, looked exhausted at the end having had to rely for long periods on Schmeichel’s reflexes, not least in extra time when the game became an exercise in attack versus defence.
The relief among Southgate’s men at the final whistle was almost palpable, giving rise to the loudest rendition of ‘Football’s Coming Home’ of the entire night.
“Having waited so long for us to get through a semi-final, given the limited international experience some of them have, the players have done a fantastic job,” added Southgate.
“We suffered in Moscow (when England lost at the same stage of the 2018 World Cup against Croatia) and we have managed to rectify that. It is an incredible opportunity to be a part of. There was chaos on the pitch and I was part of it. We have to enjoy being in the final, but there is still a huge hurdle to overcome.”
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