England ran riot in Rome last night and now stand just one game away from the European Championship final – and the greatest chance of footballing glory since 1966.
On a balmy evening in the Stadio Olimpico, Gareth Southgate’s young Lions destroyed Ukraine 4-0 with one of their most accomplished and composed performances of recent times. Captain Harry Kane scored twice, his first after just four minutes.
Back home, the final whistle detonated a joyous, full-throated roar heard in every village, town and city in the land, the cue for celebrations lasting long into the night.
1-0: Captain Harry Kane scored twice, his first after just four minutes, in England’s game against Ukraine on a balmy evening in the Stadio Olimpico, Rome
When they face Denmark in Wednesday’s semi-final in front of 60,000 at Wembley, it will be the first time an England side has reached the last four of the Euros for 25 years. It follows our 2018 World Cup semi-final against Croatia in Russia.
After the match, Kane said: ‘We had a vision… of what we wanted to achieve and we have been knocking it off step by step. And what a great performance in a big, big game – another clean sheet and four goals.’
Continuing where he left off in last week’s 2-0 win over Germany, Kane opened the scoring, slotting home from a well-judged Raheem Sterling pass.
Minutes after half-time, Manchester United’s Harry Maguire headed home to make it 2-0.
Kane added a third, and his second, with another header and the fourth came from Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, making it England’s biggest ever victory in the knockout stage of a major tournament. It was also the team’s fifth consecutive clean sheet.
Reflecting on the victory, Southgate said: ‘It’s fabulous for our country – a semi-final at Wembley.’
‘It is lovely to send everyone out on a Saturday night, with beer in hand or in the air. They deserve it. It’s been a long year.’
2-0: Minutes after half-time, Manchester United’s Harry Maguire headed home to make it 2-0
Maguire said: ‘It’s a great feeling, back-to back semi-finals [at major tournaments]… but this group of players aren’t settling for a semi-final.’
For too long, the price of hope for England fans has been despair, and for too long the national team have seemed less than the sum of its parts, often faltering through want of creativity.
But after last night’s spectacular win, there was a swelling sense that Southgate’s very modern side – combining technical ability, attacking flair and esprit de corps – has a gilt-edged opportunity to go all the way.
For a nation emerging from Covid shackles, success would be a much-needed balm, the perfect way to herald in ‘freedom day’, little more than a week after next Sunday’s Wembley final.
Already England’s march through the tournament has given the pandemic-ravaged economy a vital boost, with more than £500 million spent yesterday alone on food and drink.
Watching from Chequers, Boris Johnson tweeted at the final whistle: ‘An outstanding performance by England tonight. We’re all behind you for the semi-finals, bring it home.’
3-0: England now stand just one game away from the European Championship final – and the greatest chance of footballing glory since 1966
Around 30 million watched the game on TV in living rooms, pubs, restaurants and fan zones. Inside the Stadio Olimpico, England’s 5,000 supporters, mainly expats, were outnumbered by Ukranians but their vocal support belied their numbers.
At the end, ever the gentleman, Southgate thanked the referee, commiserated with Ukraine’s players, hugged his own and applauded the fans.
Earlier, an impressive Denmark, rank outsiders at the start of the tournament, overcame the Czech Republic 2-1 as their emotional Euro 2020 campaign continued in Baku, Azerbaijan.
The Danes have gone from strength to strength since the trauma of their opening game in which midfielder Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest.
Most England fans sold their tickets for last night’s match after officials said those travelling from the UK would have to self-isolate for five days in Italy, meaning they would miss the match.
Expat supporters from Dubai, Switzerland, Spain, the Czech Republic and France were among the first arrivals in Rome. Among them Tracey Lega ,who had travelled to Rome from her home in Tuscany and held aloft a banner saying: ‘Football’s Coming Home: Happy Birthday Ali.’
‘I have not seen my sister for over a year due to Covid restrictions.’ she explained. ‘It’s her birthday on Sunday and we just hope the banner gets picked up on TV.’
4-0: The fourth came from Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson, making it England’s biggest ever victory in the knockout stage of a major tournament
Back home, the hours before kick-off stretched interminably. Sensing the gravity of the occasion, some fans retreated into private space like prizefighters before a big bout, while many more began the festivities early, staking their claim on tables in pubs and restaurants.
It is this stage of the tournament that stirs the interest of those normally unmoved by football. ‘To me, watching football is often like counting sheep but I’ve really got into it this time,’ said Jenny Glannis-Sayer, 32, from Oxford. ‘What’s great is the way it’s given the country something very positive to focus on.’
Glory has eluded generations of players, none more so than the so-called ‘golden’ era of David Beckham and Co, who promised so much and delivered so little. But many of the heroes of Rome came of age in the era of the academy system which placed greater emphasis on technical ability and encouraged, not stifled, daring and panache.
As bookmakers Ladbrokes made England 13/8 favourites to lift the trophy, Rio Ferdinand, the former England centre back, said: ‘I have never, ever seen an England team so composed – that’s the biggest compliment.’