Gareth Southgate urged England to overcome one last hurdle after his side fought back from a goal down against Denmark and made history by joining Italy in the final of Euro 2020.
England were under pressure after conceding their first goal of the tournament when Mikkel Damsgaard gave Denmark the lead with a fine free-kick. However Southgate’s side held their nerve on a tense night at Wembley. They equalised through a Simon Kjær own goal and went ahead after Raheem Sterling won a controversial penalty in extra time, allowing Harry Kane to send his country into their first tournament final since the 1966 World Cup.
“I’m so proud of the players,” Southgate said “It’s an incredible occasion to be a part of – we knew it wouldn’t be straightforward. We said to the players we’ll have to show our resilience and come back from some setbacks, and we’ve done that tonight. The most pleasing thing is that we’ve given our fans and our nation a fantastic night, and the journey continues on for another four days.
“There’s one more massive hurdle to try to conquer. Italy are a very good side. They’ve shown outstanding form and have defensive warriors at the back who have been through everything. It’s something to look forward to.”
Southgate was pleased with how England responded to conceding their first goal of the tournament. “I felt calm in the lead-up to the game because I felt the players were ready,” he said. “You’re never 100% sure how they’ll react [to conceding first]. But we have talked about it and they stayed calm. I didn’t think they kept the ball well enough and we need to do that better on Sunday. But we found a way to win.”
Southgate praised Kane for scoring the rebound after his penalty was saved by Kasper Schmeichel. “There’s nobody you’ve rather have on it, but you’re up against a great goalkeeper who he’s obviously faced a lot of times,” England’s manager said. “Thankfully that’s now immaterial.”
There was surprise when Southgate chose to replace Jack Grealish with Kieran Trippier and switch to three at the back before the second half of extra time. Grealish had come on for Bukayo Saka during the second half but the winger was sacrificed as England looked to protect their lead.
“We felt that we know the way Denmark have gone when they’ve been behind,” Southgate said. “They’ve gone with 4-2-4 basically. We needed to keep pressure up front but have numbers to deal with the balls into the box. We made that decision, not an easy one, but Jack understood it. At the end he said: ‘Gaffer, not really bothered, we’re into the final.’”
Kane was impressed with how England, who have reached their first European Championship final, responded to falling behind.
“We’ve said all along, we can talk as much as we want, it’s about doing it on the pitch,” the captain said. “It was the first time we’ve been behind. We stayed calm. There was no panic. We created a few chances after that. We managed to get the breakthrough. The second half, we controlled it well. These games are about character, about digging in, about belief. We have that in the squad.”
Denmark were unhappy that there were two balls on the pitch just before England earned the winning penalty. Kane insisted Sterling did not dive after being challenged by Joakim Mæhle. “I thought it was a penalty,” the striker said. “I should have had a penalty as well in the second half. That’s football. Sometimes they go your way, sometimes they don’t.”
Sterling was adamant that he was fouled. “I went into the box and he stuck his right leg out and he touched my leg so it’s a penalty,” he said.
Denmark’s manager, Kasper Hjulmand, was unhappy with the decision to penalise Mæhle. “One thing is to lose a game, but losing this way is a disappointment,” he said. “These guys have fought a lot. It feels bitter.”
Southgate accepted that England had benefited from a moment of fortune. “I saw the ball on the pitch,” he said. “I wasn’t sure how that would be dealt with but I saw a game before in England where that happened and the goal wasn’t disallowed. On the balance of the game we deserved it. But if you’re to say to me that the penalty was soft, I’d understand.”
Kane was excited as he looked ahead to leading England out against Italy on Sunday. “It’s hard to sum up into words,” he said. “As a footballer it’s about the next one. It’s really sometimes hard to take it all in, to take in the crowd, everyone at home watching. Nights like tonight, you have to be here with the fans.
“We haven’t won anything yet but you have to enjoy nights like tonight. But we have one more to go. I’m proud to be captain of this squad. We’re a credit to each other. We’re excited for a final on our home ground.”