Dubai: There will never be better chance for England to win the European Championships.
But cast your minds back to their opening game against Croatia. They picked up a 1-0 win and truth be told, nobody was impressed by what they saw. Then they were held by a resolute Scotland and the pressure was suddenly on coach Gareth Southgate. They won their final group match against Czech Republic but again were far from convincing.
In the last 16 they were drawn with fierce rivals Germany and many thought it would be the end of the road for England but they finally produced a stirring performance and for the first time in the tournament they scored more than a solitary goal. Beating the Germans, who have always had the edge in past meetings, was a massive psychological boost. Suddenly, people started to believe that England might just go all the way. Those beliefs have been solidified after a 4-0 thumping of Ukraine in the quarterfinals and now they meet Denmark in the semis.
Yet to concede a goal
These are the facts: England will be back at Wembley – a venue where they have played all but one match at the tournament. They are unbeaten. And, perhaps most importantly, they have yet to concede a single goal. That is a new record at the European Championships – five matches without conceding. Keeping it tight at the back always gives you a chance and currently England are water tight back there. Jordan Pickford has been a revelation. So often to blame for sloppy goals and errors for Everton, he has been flawless at the international stage. It isn’t just the fact that he is keeping clean sheets – he seems to have really matured now too. No longer do we see him pulling faces or goofing around – he is composed and measured in everything he does right now. He has been nothing short of incredible, but a lot of the credit must go to the defenders playing in front of him. The return of Harry McGuire has been key. The centre half has been a rock at the back as has John Stones while at left back Luke Shaw has made the position his own in spite of stiff competition in the squad with the likes of Ben Chillwell pushing for a start, but Shaw has proven he is robust in his defensive duties but also when going forward he has been able to provide three assists.
We all know the wealth of talent Southgate has in his squad and he was able to call on Sancho and Mount yesterday while Rice and Phillips retained their positions in the heart of midfield. But perhaps the coach’s biggest call was to keep faith with the misfiring Harry Kane. Many had been calling on Southgate to drop the Spurs striker, but he again started last night and broke the deadlock just minutes into the game which helped settle any nerves, not that they were visible. England were brilliant from the first minute to the last and fully deserved their win and place in the semis. They sure answered a few questions too – pertinently whether they could score goals. Well, they got four yesterday and could have far more.
They have clicked into gear when they needed to most, that is the way all the successful teams do it in tournament football. You can’t always play attractive football and expect to win games – well, not unless you are Italy (they have been superb) – but England have clearly grown as a team as the tournament has progressed and now find themselves firm favourites to win it.
Denmark are up next and although every neutral would love to see them win it for the emotional rollercoaster of a tournament they have had, I think they have already left their mark on the competition by getting to the semis and can bow out with their heads held high. Now, it really is time for England to push on and finally win some silverware, their first since the 1966 World Cup triumph.
They have come close on several occasions – I remember Italia 90 and going out on penalties to West Germany in the semis. It was heartbreak. We had a chance to make amends for that painful defeat in Euro 96 when again penalties would be needed but again, the Germans went though. We haven’t needed spot kicks yet, and the way we are playing, I don’t think we will have to suffer the stress of being involved in a dreaded shootout. I see the brilliant Italians getting to the final and it will be a great game against England.
But the Three Lions will be roared on by 60,000 fans. England are coming to the boil at the right time and look solid all over the pitch. They simply have to believe they can do it because this is the best chance they'll ever have.