ROME — Tournament knockout games involving England aren’t supposed to be like this. For a country used to nerve-shredding nights of fine margins that, let’s be frank, often end in agonising failure, the sight of Gareth Southgate’s side breezing into the Euro 2020 semifinals with a 4-0 win over Ukraine in Rome was an almost unbelievable departure from history.
There was a vaguely similar feeling three years ago at the same stage of the 2018 World Cup when England beat Sweden 2-0, but that afternoon did not possess the same serenity as this. It all felt so fragile then. This time, England’s display was merely the consequence of Southgate and this galvanised group of players feeling at home at this rarefied level, delivering on their various statements of intent — and nobody more so than Harry Kane.
The Tottenham Hotspur striker was substituted in England’s opening game against Croatia after a subdued display that led to speculation over whether he should still lead England’s attack. Five games later, he was taken off after 72 minutes at the Stadio Olimpico with a brace under his belt, UEFA’s Star of the Match award and one eye on a late run at the Golden Boot.
Before Kane got off the mark in this tournament in Tuesday’s last-16 win over Germany, he reflected on how he struggled to sustain his form at the 2018 World Cup, where he still ended up as top goal scorer.
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“I felt maybe in Russia I started on fire, scored loads of goals, then maybe didn’t have my best performances in the most important games: the quarters and the semifinals,” he said. “So, coming into this, physically, I wanted to make sure I was peaking at the right time and obviously we won’t know until Tuesday night if that’s the case, but that’s the way I feel it’s going.”
We know now. On a muggy night in the Italian capital, where temperatures remained around 25 degrees Celsius at a 9 p.m. local kickoff, a fast start was essential. England played with a high defensive line, squeezed their opponents and scored within four minutes.
Kane finished the move with a smart run and finish, but Raheem Sterling made it happen. Harry Maguire spread the play out wide to Sterling. Luke Shaw’s underlapping run attracted a Ukraine defender away, allowing space for Sterling to run infield, bounce off a challenge from Mykola Shaparenko and slip a superb ball through to Kane, who did the rest.
Five years ago at Euro 2016, Sterling declared himself “the hated one” as the winger bore the brunt of England’s underperformance. He faced criticism before this tournament, too, after an underwhelming end to the domestic season with Manchester City, the fans’ fall guy in the clamour to include Jack Grealish and Phil Foden in England’s starting lineup.
“Teams have to go on a bit of a journey and they have to go through some pain sometimes to be able to progress,” Southgate said after the match. “We’ve had some great nights over the past four years but we’ve also had some painful nights and we’ve learned from all of those experiences. That has definitely helped us prepare for another tournament and prepare for the individual games, the understanding of each other and how we want to play, and also the recognition that moments like tonight, we didn’t want to take a backwards step. We wanted to really grasp the opportunity rather than hope that we might win or let fate have a chance to play its part. I thought the players were decisive and ruthless all night.”
Along with Kane, Sterling is now surely the first name on Southgate’s team sheet. Ukraine simply did not know how to handle him, and together with Shaw, he formed a formidable pair on the left flank while Jadon Sancho, in his first meaningful minutes of the finals, justified his surprise selection on the right with Bukayo Saka unavailable due to a knock.
Shaw had been heavily criticised by Jose Mourinho during their time together at Manchester United and also this summer with the Portuguese working as a pundit for a United Kingdom radio station. The 25-year-old chose to fire back in an interview last weekend — “Hopefully he can find his peace with that and finally move on and stop worrying about me” — and he backed that up on the pitch with two superb performances against Germany and now Ukraine.
A minute after half-time, Shaw delivered a superb set piece for Maguire to plant a header past Ukraine goalkeeper Georgiy Bushchan that almost took the net with it. Maguire’s selection in Southgate’s final 26-man squad was widely questioned given he had been injured since May 9 due to an ankle problem, but he has grown in stature as his fitness returned.
Shaw delivered again four minutes later, this time picking out Kane unmarked from close range to head his second. Kane went 463 minutes for England without a goal. He now has three in two games and took his tally in major tournaments to nine, one behind Gary Lineker’s all-time England record of 10.
“Whenever you are playing you want to be the best you can be and try and become the best that there has been,” said Kane. “Major tournaments are massive for our country, massive for our nation. I love being involved in them. It would be great. Gary was an amazing player, a great English striker.
“If I’m able to score a goal or two in the next game it should hopefully help us proceed to the final. I’ve said all along, group stage, where I’m now, it is just about helping the team as much as possible as a striker. If scoring goals is that then hopefully I can score a few more.”
A moment that suggested confidence really is coursing through Kane once again came just before England’s fourth.
A looping defensive header from Oleksandr Karavaev fell to the 27-year-old on the edge of the box and he hit a dipping, fierce left-foot volley that Bushchan did brilliantly to tip wide. From the resulting corner, Jordan Henderson joined the list of those defying pre-tournament scepticism.
Selected with even greater questions over his fitness than Maguire, having not played for Liverpool since Feb. 20 following groin surgery, he appeared to break team protocols by taking — and missing — a penalty as England beat Romania in their final warm-up game last month. Desperation to score his first England goal was the charge levelled at him. He dismissed that claim and even suggested he felt the goal would soon come. As it turns out, he saved it for a Euros quarterfinal instead, heading home Mason Mount’s 63rd-minute corner — his maiden international strike coming in his 62nd cap.
By this stage, Southgate was able to protect two of the four players carrying yellow cards — which are wiped before the semifinal stage — as Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips were substituted before Shaw, Sterling and Kane were given valuable rests with another quick turnaround ahead of Wednesday’s semifinal against Denmark. It was, in many ways, the perfect night.
It must be said that England have had useful advantages at these finals. It seems too much of a coincidence that all four semifinalists played their three group-stage games at home. Equally, this felt a game too far for Ukraine after they needed 120 minutes to beat Sweden on Tuesday.
But rarely have England seized such moments with this conviction or, remarkably, this degree of comfort. Their self-assurance was grounded in a strong work ethic, clarity of purpose and conviction in their approach — a mindset far removed from the calamity of tournaments pre-Southgate and a credit to the shift engendered by the 50-year-old.
England had never won a Euros knockout match in 90 minutes before this week. Now they have beaten Germany to exorcise decades of demons and scored four goals in a knockout game for the first time since the 1966 World Cup final.
This team really could change things now that Kane is leading the charge.