KEIR RADNEDGE at WEMBLEY—- Wembley rocked to ‘Football’s coming home’ and then to ‘Sweet Caroline’after England beat leg-weary Denmark 2-1 in extra time to reach their first European Championship final.
Now the nation will have to banish all the euphoria to the dustbin of football history then refresh, re-set and go through the emotional roller-coaster all over again. In Italy Sunday will present England with a far higher class of opposition than the Danes.
England’s performance was not pretty or especially memorable but it was effectively and highly professional – including the judgment of substitutions by manager Gareth Southgate – and, of course, it laid so many ghosts.
Denmark fly home on wings of everyone’s admiration for the manner in which they overcame the shattering drama of captain Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest to progress beyond the likes of fancied France, Germany and Portugal.
In the end they were beaten at Wembley by the emotional toll as much as by England and the will of the home fans.
It was Denmark’s ill fortune that the UK government’s Covid-19 exemption for the tournament added a majority of the newly-expanded 64,000 crowd to the weight of opposition.
Denmark snatched an early lead when Mikkel Damsgaard converted the first direct free-kick goal of these finals before an own goal by Simon Kjaer, under pressure from Raheem Sterling, pulled England level six minutes before half-time.
Some 11 minutes into extra time Sterling was tripped and though keeper Kasper Schmeichel stopped Harry Kane’s penalty, the England captain pounced on the rebound to send the Three Lions into their first major final since the 1966 World Cup – also here at Wembley.
This was England’s third major semi-final at Wembley after a 2-1 win over Eusebio’s Portugal at the 1966 World Cup and then the penalties defeat by Germany at Euro 96.
It was also their third Euro semi-final. England had lost not only in 1996 but also by 1-0 to Yugoslavia in Florence back in 1968 – when Italy won the final.
Now, after the nation’s euphoric build-up to the semi, the whole show will have to be repeated for Sunday’s meeting with far more redoubtable opposition than the Danes.
Denmark had ridden a wave of emotion arising out of the Eriksen incident from first game to semi-final but after starting well they lost all impetus early in the second half and never pulled themselves back on track.
Southgate made one change from the England starting line-up who beat Ukraine with Arsenal 19-year-old Bukayo Saka replacing Jadon Sancho on the right wing.
England’s initial positive approach proved unsettling for the Danes. Sterlng was just too late to catch on to a right-wing cross from Kane who then had one shot saved low by keeper Kasper Schmeichel and skied another too high.
The first Denmark attempt was a low shot from Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg which was saved low by keeper Jordan Pickford. Sloppy work on the clearance almost allowed the Danes back in but quick covering saved the day.
Hojbjerg was becoming increasingly influential in midfield as Denmark began to forge forward and pick holes through midfield. The outcome of one such raid was an opening from which Mikel Damsgaard skimming an angled shot over Pickford’s crossbar.
Like a rugby team, Denmark progressed closer to England’s goal with a couple of free kicks. The second, 25 yards out, proved fatal as Damsgaard thumped his shot up past Pickford’s right hand. England’s defence had been breached for the first time in the finals.
England hit back immediately. Sterling had a shot saved at point-blank range by Schmeichel and then scored, with a deflection off Simon Kjaer, after being set up by Kane and Saka.
The second half began with Maguire, sent off against Denmark last autumn, in the thick of the action. First he was booked for knocking over Kjaer at a free kick and then he had a header brilliantly pushed away by the diving Schmeichel.
England gradually gathered momentum with the crowd roaring them forward. The Danes, intent now only on survival, pulled everyone back and managed to smother forays by Sterling, Saka, Kane and Mason Mount.
A flurry of replacements fractured the patterns of an increasingly ragged game without changing its balance. Kalvin Phillips shot over the bar and a Maguire header was safely grasped by Schmeichel as the match ran to extra time.
The introductions now of Phil Foden and Jordan Henderson refreshed England’s attacking effort and they finally, deservedly, took the lead.
Joakim Maehle tripped Sterling dribbling into the box and, after a VAR check, Kane followed up to score the winning goal after his initial penalty kick was stopped by Schmeichel.
At the final whistle England’s happy and relieved fans belted out ‘Football’s coming home!’ and ‘Sweet Caroline’
England, with an irony which will not have been lost on Southgate, had qualified for their first Euro final after missing a penalty.
Gareth Southgate, England manager: “I’m so proud of the players. It was an incredible occasion to be a part of. The fans were incredible all night. We knew it wouldn’t be straightforward. The game the other night in Rome was so straightforward. We said to the players that we would have to show some resilience, that they would have to recover from some setbacks, and we did that.”
Harry Kane, England captain: “Unbelievable – what a game though, credit to Denmark. We dug deep and we got there when it mattered. We reacted really well. We’re in a final at home, what a feeling. We know it’s going to be a very tough game against Italy. We’ve had a great tournament so far. One more game to go at home, and we can’t wait.”
Raheem Sterling, England forward: “It was a top performance. We had to dig deep. It was the first time we conceded but we responded well and showed good spirit. We knew it would be difficult. We stayed patient, and we knew with the legs and aggressiveness we have in the team that we’d be OK.”
Kasper Hjulmand, Denmark coach: “Obviously, it’s a big disappointment that we’re so close to the final. It has been amazing what the boys have done. There’s a fantastic power within these guys. They play football in a fantastic way. We’ve been attacking, scoring goals and showed our true selves. The players just went on with everything they have – both off and on the pitch.”
England: Pickford – Walker, Stones, Maguire, Shaw – Phillips, Rice (Henderson 95) – Saka (Grealish 69, Trippier 106), Mount (Foden 95), Sterling – Kane.
Denmark: Schmeichel – Christensen (Andersen 79), Kjær, Vestergaard (Wind 105) – Stryger (Wass 67), Højbjerg, Delaney (Jensen 88), Mæhle- Braithwaite, Dolberg (Nørgaard 67), Damsgaard (Poulsen 67)
Referee: Makkelie (Net). Attendance: 64,950.