Gareth Southgate and England ram barbs down throats of critics - but can they land ultimate Euros sucker-punch

England 2-1 Netherlands: Manager gets subs spot-on to set up mouthwatering final with Spain

A nation believes again. After fierce criticism of manager Gareth Southgate and some of his players, England are back in the final of the European Championships, defying the naysayers and doom-merchants.

Winning tournaments isn't always about swashbuckling football. It's a marathon, not a sprint. Yes, England played with fire against Slovakia and to a lesser extent Switzerland, but they were better here, defeating Netherlands 2-1 in Dortmund to set up a final showdown with Spain on Sunday. Rather than being burned, England are the slow burner.

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What a final we have in prospect now. This is the best crop of English players for some time and under Southgate, immensely popular with his squad, they have reached back-to-back Euros finals. They recovered from conceding an early opener against the Dutch to level and completely dominate the first half. Chastised often for his substitutions, Southgate won the game with his replacements on 80 minutes. Ollie Watkins and Cole Palmer came on for two talismen in Harry Kane and Phil Foden. The duo combined for the winner, sumptuously converted by the Aston Villa hitman.

Spain have been the competition's most impressive team, but England have resilience and spirit in spades. This final, in Berlin, is a mouth-watering prospect. These are two different teams, who have played completely contrasting styles. Oscar de la Fuente's men will go in as favourites given their array of riches. The last game they lost competitively was against Scotland at Hampden back in May last year. England's run goes even deeper - their last loss in a match that mattered was against France at the 2022 World Cup. Two of the globe's best international teams will clash at the Olympic Stadium.

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With the exception of their opening group match against Serbia, England have been lethargic starters to games at this tournament. Just seven minutes in, Netherlands took the lead. Avid followers of transfer windows in Scottish football might remember the name Xavi Simons. Back in the winter window of 2021, Rangers wanted to sign the then 18-year-old on loan from PSG. Spells at PSV and RB Leipzig on loan have followed and there can be no doubting the winger's talent. He took the ball in on the right, strode forward and popped a shot from outside the box high past Jordan Pickford.

England tried to respond. Kane's long-range effort was saved by Bart Verbruggen and then the England captain blazed over under pressure from Denzel Dumfries, whose foot was high and caught Kane's foot as he shot. VAR recommended a penalty review and referee Felix Zwayer gave it. Soft? Probably. Kane made no mistake. One apiece before the 20-minute mark.

England had the momentum and came so close to scoring again on 23 minutes. The ball was worked through to Foden and the Man City forward nutmegged Verbruggen, only for Dumfries to smuggle the ball bang off the line. This was now England's best period of the tournament.

The Dutch were helping them, though. Spooked by the penalty incident, their midfield duo of Jerdy Schouten and Tijjani Reijnders were putting up a flimsy resistance. England looked the likelier team to score next. Foden, to be precise.

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The Foden of Man City had rocked up. The Premier League's best player last term, the 24-year-old was waltzing around the final third, pirouetting into space. The Dutch could not keep up. On 32 minutes, he unleashed a left-footed effort from distance that cracked off the post. Had it gone in, the goal would have rivalled Spain's Lamine Yamal from the night before.

From the other side of Manchester, United's Kobbie Mainoo - England's youngest player to start a semi-final at 19 - was also playing well. He is such a slick distributor of the football and able to do the defensive, pressing side of the game. He was growing into the match, exerting more and more influence and linking up well with Foden.

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The duo combined for the latter to test Verbruggen once more. The Dutch needed half time to regroup, manager Ronald Koeman already forced into one change after injury to forward Memphis Depay. Wisely, he brought on midfielder Joey Veerman - another former Rangers transfer target - to help out Schouten and Reijnders.

Both teams made changes at the break. England turned to Luke Shaw as a natural left-back in place of Kieran Trippier, while Malen came off for Wout Weghorst, a brute of a striker who is contracted to Burnley.

The pause had allowed the game to reset. The pace and intensity of the first half had fizzled into the German air. This suited Netherlands, who had struggled to contain the English when the play was broken and open.

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We were now seeing the England of before, playing possession-based football without penetration. From pulsating to pedestrian. The Dutch weren't much better but had the opening chance of the second period on 65 minutes, Virgil van Dijk prodding a shot from a free-kick towards Pickford, who boxed the ball to safety. With Kane becoming less and less effective, England needed a change in the final third.

It came on 80 minutes, with Watkins and Palmer brought on for Kane and Foden - who was completely neutered in the second period. Just before the switch, England had the ball in the net through Saka but Kyle Walker had just strayed offside. Extra time loomed ominously, despite England's glimpse of creativity.

The subs, however, had other ideas. Watkins peeled into the right channel and Palmer found him. The Aston Villa striker let the ball run across him and then drilled it through the legs of Stefan de Vrij and right into the far corner. It was a deadly finish from a man who lit up the Premier League this year. Southgate celebrated wildly. His intervention from the bench - and the timing of it - should be hailed.

The stunned Dutch pressed for a leveller, but it was too late. England are in the Euro 2024 final. Spain stand between them and ultimate glory.

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