How England made it through to Euro 2020 final with VAR controversy and two balls on the park
Three lions on their chest, but two balls on the park?
Glory now beckons for Gareth Southgate’s side under the Wembley arch against Italy on Sunday night, but they benefited from a penalty decision allowed to stand after a VAR check.
Whether Raheem Sterling was fouled or not by Joakim Maehle will be debated for the rest of this week and beyond. But what was not in doubt was the presence of another stray ball in the box as the England winger weaved between Danish defenders before eventually tumbling to the turf. But why had Dutch referee Danny Makkelle not already halted play?
Harry Kane did the required from the spot but only after Kasper Schmeichel saved his original effort. The striker was following up well to slot home the rebound. Tiredness seemed to account for the lack of alertness from the Danes, who gave their all on a pulsating night in north London. It will be the same again on Sunday when England seek to win their second major title and their first for 55 years.
Gareth Southgate was the comforter rather than the one needed comforted, as was the case after his last kick of Euro ’96. He embraced Danish manager Kasper Hjulmand at the end. To hell with restrictions. There was some solace for Scotland: they remain the only side to have denied England, the potential European champions, in front of goal this summer.
Denmark knew they would likely have to do something no other team had managed at Euro 2020, and that was score against England. In fact, they did so twice – sadly for them, one counted for their opponents. Skipper Simon Kjaer’s own goal shortly before half-time had England dreaming again.
England expects. England always expects. But their tournament form stretching back decades has been moderate at best. Denmark are the first top ten team they have faced in this run to the final and they nearly came unstuck.
Southgate decided to recall the Arsenal teenager Bukayo Saka, who was left out of the squad for the quarter final win over Ukraine after picking up a knock.
It was another test of temperament for the Arsenal teenager. He looked unsettled by the intensity of the opening minutes but played a significant part in England’s equaliser six minutes before half-time as Southgate’s side responded well to their first mini crisis of the competition.
The Danes, for their part, sought to extract some of the emotion from an occasion that they knew threatened to be overwhelming enough. There were 60,000 inside the stadium but it might just as well have been 90,000 in terms of atmosphere. Other than a huddle, there was no visible sign that much of this was about Christian Eriksen when of course so much of it was.
Unlike when Neymar was injured in the 2014 World Cup, Denmark did not ‘do a Brazil’ and carry a shirt with his name on the back onto the pitch at the start. Rather, England skipper Harry Kane presented his opposite number Kjaer with an English shirt on which “Eriksen” was printed. It’s the thought that counts.
After the niceties were over, a proper football match, in front of a proper crowd, could begin. Absorbing is the word. All 120 captivating minutes of it.
England should have opened the scoring after six minutes, but Kane’s cross was just too far in front of Sterling. Denmark were initially made to look quite ordinary. Andreas Christensen booted the ball straight out of the park at one point.
Slowly, but surely, they recovered. They even grew into the game. Serie A players are included in their forward line. They did not fluke their way to the last four despite what some commentators might have you believe. Mikkel Damsgaard, the 20-year-old Sampdoria winger, had already come close with a curling effort before he found his range on the half hour mark with a well hit free kick that cleared the wall and left Jordan Pickford looking perplexed on the ground. Pickford will still feel he should have got closer to the ball. The England goalkeeper has had a good tournament, but he looked shaky at times here.
Another goal before half-time for Denmark would have tested the resolve of England as well as the patience of the vast majority of supporters in the stadium. They had come to party. They had come to keep on cheering football back home.
Schmeichel had already delivered a withering assessment on that matter in the pre-match press conference. He had another big say after 38 minutes when blocking Sterling’s effort from close range. England’s equaliser was only delayed, however, and while Sterling was on hand to tap in Saka’s cross after Kane’s through ball, it was Kjaer who got there before him to inadvertently bundle the ball over the line.
Schmeichel proved a major obstacle for England. He denied Harry Maguire with a magnificent one-handed save to his right ten minutes into the second half.
Jannik Vestergaard sent Saka into the land of ghosts and shadows with a bone-shuddering challenge. Denmark played on. Wembley roared its disapproval. The Danes sensed there might be something on for them in the latter stages though they had to endure a potential penalty check for a foul on Kane by substitute Christian Norgaard.
The referee originally judged Kane to have been the culprit. The verdict came back: no penalty. Again, Wembley, aside from 6000 or so Danes, passed its opinion in the form of sustained jeers. With four substitutes on the field with ten minutes of the 90 left, Denmark were clearly hoping to apply the knockout blow before extra-time. England looked to Grealish, who replaced Saka after 69 minutes.
The home fans were baying for the Aston Villa skipper’s introduction long before that. Sterling switched to the right flank, Grealish took up position on the left, as he did against Scotland.
Rather than flatter him on his well-developed calves, as Stephen O’Donnell confessed to doing earlier in the tournament, fellow substitute and opposite number Daniel Wass simply flattened him to earn a booking. It was that kind of match.
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