England captain Harry Kane fired his side into their first European Championship final by slamming in the rebound to his saved penalty in extra-time, as Gareth Southgate’s team eclipsed the manager’s icons of 25 years ago with a hard-fought 2-1 win over brave Denmark.
Southgate has carried the pain of his shoot-out penalty miss at Wembley since Euro 96 but his Three Lions wrote their own history on Wednesday night, setting up a Sunday showdown with Italy back at Wembley.
It was far from straightforward, with Mikkel Damsgaard breaching England’s previously watertight defence with the first direct free-kick goal of the tournament on 30 minutes after the hosts had made a fast start.
But England forced an equalizer home through a Simon Kjaer own goal and while they could not get the job done in 90 minutes against an increasingly-tired Danish side, who had flown in from their quarter-final in Baku, the majority of the 60,000 fans back at Wembley roared with delight when Kane eventually beat the otherwise brilliant Kasper Schmeichel.
For Denmark, it is a valiant end to an incredible story at this tournament, and they deserve huge praise for what they have achieved after the shock of Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest in their first match.
But England and their supporters can now look forward to one more match and the country’s first major tournament final since 1966.
How England’s young lions made history…
At kick-off those supporters were eclipsing the noise created ahead of the Scotland and Germany matches earlier in the tournament. On the big screen, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner were singing along to ‘Three Lions’ and the spirit of Euro 96 had undoubtedly been recaptured.
That electric atmosphere surged with early dribbles from Raheem Sterling, when Mason Mount twisted on the edge of the Danish box, and when Kane whipped a wonderful cross just beyond the Man City man’s reach.
But England threatened to be their own undoing soon after. Southgate’s side had done well to stamp out individual mistakes in this tournament, but Kalvin Phillips was robbed by Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who shot at Jordan Pickford, it was an alarming couple of minutes for England and gave Denmark confidence, with Damsgaard bending a shot wide from the edge of the area. As the first-half clock ticked on, Pickford’s streak without conceding for his country stretched past 720 minutes, setting a new English record. Moments later the ball was in his net.
Damsgaard’s free-kick strike from 25 yards was sublime, with the 21-year-old dipping a fierce effort under the bar and in off Pickford’s fingertips, although the ’keeper will feel he could have done better.
England looked rattled. Pickford gave the ball away again. Denmark almost created a second on the break after Sterling’s free-kick hit the wall. On the touchline Southgate urged his side to calm down.
The tension increased inside Wembley when Schmeichel pulled off an incredible stop to prevent Sterling turning in Kane’s cross. But a minute later a similar move led to England’s leveller.
Kane dropped deep, fed Bukayo Saka with a fine pass, and, with Sterling primed to tuck in his fourth of the tournament, Kjaer beat him to it and deflected the ball into his own goal.
England had the momentum behind them in the final moments of the half but, after the interval, it was Denmark again looking the most threatening – before Schmeichel made a second superb stop of the night to keep out Harry Maguire’s header at full stretch.
Kasper Dolberg shot at Pickford after another cutting Danish move but that would be their first and only shot since the goal until extra-time, as England finally began to rediscover their authority in the match, with Mount seeing a shot blocked and another claimed by Schmeichel.
On 68 minutes, Southgate sent on Jack Grealish and he was straight into the action, forcing Daniel Wass into a foul that earned a booking, before dribbling into the box in the build-up to Sterling seeing a shot blocked.
England supporters were calling for a penalty when Kane went down in the box soon after but ref Danny Makkelie instead gave a free-kick for simulation and was backed up by VAR, before Andreas Christensen’s brilliant interception prevented Maguire sending Grealish through and Phillips drilled wide from the edge of the box.
During a nail-biting finale, England pegged back a tiring Denmark side, but still could not force a way through, with John Stones, Phillips and Maguire unable to convert and Kane mis-cuing from Grealish’s cut-back in the final seconds of normal time.
Schmeichel was sharp again to deny Kane after the restart, and the Leicester man punched away a powerful Grealish effort before Sterling shot wastefully over as England piled on the pressure.
But then came the breakthrough. Sterling has been England’s go-to man at this tournament and he proved decisive again, with his slaloming run into the box ended by a trip from Joakim Maehle. It was a soft one but after a long VAR check it stood and Kane stepped up to take it. Schmeichel got behind the tame shot, he should have grasped it – but the ball slipped out and into the path of Kane to convert the rebound and send Wembley wild.
The Danes spirited up a big push in the second half of extra-time in search of an equaliser but were all out of steam and down to 10 for the final stages when Mathias Jensen limped off. England stood firm and saw out the historic win with their delighted supporters chanting ‘Ole’ with every pass late on.
At the final whistle, the celebrations started, the fans sung ‘football is coming home’ – but the dream is not complete yet…