England entered the Euro 2020 semi-finals with a convincing win 4-0 win over Ukraine, hinting at a peak in form coming at the right time.
When Harry Kane opened the scoring for England just three minutes into the Euro 2020 quarterfinal against Ukraine, it was hard not to feel a little scared. Not that taking the lead early is ever a bad thing, but it can lead to some complacency. Would England go hard for a second or sit deep, knowing their less-fancied opponents’ game-plan already lay in shreds? A one-goal lead is never safe, as modern football has demonstrated time and again. Enough relentless attacking can make even the safest of leads evaporate. And indeed, as the first half wore on, there were a few warning signs for the Three Lions.
Kyle Walker, normally so assured at right-back, twice made errors that could have led to goals. Ukraine manager Andriy Shevchenko switched from the 3-5-2 to a 4-3-3, knowing a goal was needed and Ukraine briefly came to life.
However, England made it through to the half-time whistle with their slender lead secure. Come the second half and a renewed sense of purpose gripped them. Three well-taken goals later, they were through to the semi-finals.
In hindsight, one can see quite clearly that there wasn’t much to worry about. Ukraine’s entire Euro 2020 journey was predicated on fight and courage. On a technical level, their players didn’t quite match up to the English.
Still, as has been seen in the past with England sides, mere quality isn’t enough. It’s showing up in the moments that count.
Coming into the game, England knew they would have to be on the front foot from the get go. They clearly relished being on the attack too, as was demonstrated by the opening goal.
Raheem Sterling, who has been England’s player of the tournament thus far, played a beautiful pass that found Kane in acres of space and left the Ukraine back-line flat-footed.
The skipper, whose form has been mixed but who scored against Germany, obliged with an instinctive striker’s finish, toe-poking the ball into the next with his first touch.
Yet after a somewhat nervy half thereafter, England knew another goal was needed – and fast. It came from the Manchester United duo of Luke Shaw and Harry Maguire.
Shaw dangled a free-kick inside the penalty area and Maguire powered home a perfect header. It was just vindication for both men. Shaw’s resurgence this season is well-known, but Maguire has also grown leaps and bounds.
His return to the back-line has coincided with England looking more solid and few would argue he deserved this goal. Shaw, meanwhile, was not done yet.
He once again played provider four minutes later, putting in another inviting ball into the box. This time, Kane met the cross with a powerful header and England were in the clear.
The icing on the cake came 13 minutes later. England had won a corner and Mason Mount stepped up to take it. His cross found Jordan Henderson, who had come on as a substitute.
Henderson, who till that point had never scored an international goal, headed home in clinical fashion. His frenzied celebration showed how much it meant. As did the fact that all his teammates ran up to congratulate him.
England will now face Denmark in the semi-final to be held in Wembley. With 65,000 spectators set to be on hand for the match, one can easily expect another cracking encounter.
Of course, should England win that match, they will play the final in the exact same location. But let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves just yet.
Given the kind of disappointment England fans have faced over the years, it is understandable why keeping expectations tempered is okay.
That being said, this England side look different to the ‘Golden Generation’ that flattered to deceive. For one, they look and play like a real team.
The England side of the early to mid 2000s featured a bunch of stars who did not often play in a cohesive manner. Seeing that side eke out group wins only to fail at the first real hurdle is something fans became used to.
However, under Gareth Southgate, England are not only playing winning football but are also functioning as a unit. The devotion to the cause unites the squad, and it is a hallmark of teams who can go the distance in tournaments like these.
England did, of course, reach the semi-finals of the 2018 World Cup under Southgate too where they fell to eventual runners-up Croatia.
As their win against the same opposition in this tournament showed, England are willing to learn from their mistakes. Just how different they are from the sides of the past will be determined by how much further they can go.