England edge past Netherlands with added time Watkins strike

July 10 – England will play Spain in their second successive European championship final and their first-ever major final abroad after Ollie Watkins’s brilliant 90th-minute strike eliminated the Netherlands in a 2-1 semi-final victory. 

England and Gareth Southgate faced criticism for a turgid style and unimaginative substitutions, though they have improved in the knock-out rounds. The semi-final saw a very different England, at last comfortable with their set up and playing at a greater pace and intensity going forward.

They dominated the first half, despite going behind early on and could easily have gone in at half time a goal up.

Watkins, on as a substitute, provided the defining moment, set up on the right by Cole Palmer, also on as a sub, he drove the ball through the legs of his defender and into the far corner. England and their fans celebrated as the country qualified for its first major final in a tournament they have not hosted.

Xavi Simons opened the scoring for the Netherlands

Set up in a 4-2-3-1, England seized possession early on and what was in effect a midfield four dominated the Dutch three with Declan Rice and Kobbie Mainoo calling the shots.

The Dutch have been without their talisman Frenkie de Jong but Xavi Simons has blossomed in a central role this tournament.

In the 7th minute, he bullied Rice off the ball and rifled a bullet of a shot into the top corner that Jordan Pickford got a hand to but never looked like stopping. The Orange Wall behind the English goalkeeper went wild.

It was a stunning masterpiece to ignite the semi-final. England responded with bravura – Bukaya Sako running rings around the Dutch defenders, constantly wandering infield, leaving the opposing rearguard confused. On one of his gallops, Saka’s loose ball dropped to Harry Kane, author of a cracking shot earlier, and the striker blasted a half-volley over.

Harry Kane equalised for England from the spot

On review the referee Felix Zwayer awarded a penalty to England for a challenge by Denzel Dumfries. It was a questionable decision, one that tested the boundaries between a collision and a challenge. From the spot, Kane converted and England were level in the 18th minute.

Following in the footsteps of Spain and France on Tuesday, England and the Netherlands, playing without too many inhibitions, offered an absorbing spectacle in the first half.

Kobie Mainoo ran at the Dutch defence and slipped the ball to Phil Foden, whose spatial awareness and nifty feet prompted him to take out a defender, round Bart Verbruggen and finish. Dumfries, who was playing box-to-box football, was on hand with a brilliant clearance off the line. The defender thenthumped a header against the England woodwork at the half-hour mark.

Foden almost gave England the lead with a trademark strike that ricocheted off the post. On the half turn, he had moved infield to let fly a perfect curler.

Cody Gakpo is challenged by Bukayo Saka

The Dutch were struggling against England’s pace and precision. Southgate’s team had all the energy. Mainoo motored with a maturity defying his age and from the full-backs to the front line, the entire XI swarmed around the pitch. There was a sense of liberation to England’s game.

To compound the Netherlands’ problems, striker Memphis Depay limped off injured in the 35th minute. On came Joey Veerman, transforming Oranje’s formation into a far tighter 4-3-3, as they had been overrun in the midfield. Yet, without a proper attacking outlet, it was hard to see the Dutch get out of their own half, let alone score a second.

At half-time, Koeman responded by bringing on Wout Weghorst, who had played in the number nine role flanked by both Cody Gakpo and Simons.

England however retained the ball and control, pinning the Netherlands back in their own half. Yet, with Veerman reinforcing the midfield, the Dutch seemed somewhat more comfortable.

Ollie Watkins scored England’s winner in added time

They sensed this was perhaps an even game again. England were no longer whizzing past the orange shirts as if they didn’t exist. Their urgency and threat had been negated.

Veerman whipped in a set piece and Virgil van Dijk timed his run to connect well. Pickford flung himself to his left to prevent a Dutch lead. Simons smashed a volley into the ground, but the Netherlands had the slight upper hand. In holding up play, Weghorst was the perfect outlet.

Yet the goal came at the other end. Saka, the man of the match against Switzerland diverted a cutback from Kyle Walker in the 79th minute past Verbruggen, but Walker proved to be a toenail offside.

England weren’t done. With Southgate making subs on the brink of full-time, England scored the winning goal, and a ticket to a second consecutive European final.

Substitute Watkins arrowed a stunning low strike through the legs of Stefan de Vrij and past Verbruggen. It was the sweetest of finishes and the Dutch could not believe it.

England had found a way again. They had come from behind in all three knockout ties. They were on the brink of going out against Slovakia, needed penalties against the Swiss and kept the best for last against the Netherlands.

They have hardly played fantasy football in Germany, but they are among the two last teams standing. England and Southgate are in a final again.

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