DAILY MAIL 🔵 England are suddenly the team we wanted them to be, writes IAN LADYMAN – Shango Media
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DAILY MAIL 🔵 England are suddenly the team we wanted them to be, writes IAN LADYMAN

  • Gareth Southgate’s side will play Spain in the Euro 2024 final in Berlin on Sunday 

Gareth Southgate said his players had been too scared to play football here in Germany at the start of this tournament. Quite gloriously and quite magnificently, this England team have gone from fear to the final. They will meet Spain in Berlin on Sunday with the wind in their sails and courage in their hearts.

This was a fabulous performance from Southgate’s team, the kind of display we had been waiting for from the minute they touched down in Germany in the first week of June. A victory built on a foundation laid by the skill, talent and enterprise of some of English football’s most carefully nurtured attacking players, it was earned at the death by a magical swish of the right foot by a young striker who may just have wondered what he had been doing at Euro 2024 for these four long weeks.

Ollie Watkins, once of Exeter City and Brentford, waited for a while to get his chance at the big time. He was 24 by the time he joined Aston Villa. 

Here in Germany, he has been similarly patient. Prior to this momentous night, Watkins had seen only 20 minutes of action as a substitute in the 1-1 draw with Denmark in game two. As England had muddled through against Slovakia and Switzerland, he had not been required. 

Southgate’s reluctance to ever take off his captain Harry Kane had seen to that and that must have been hard to take. The role of the squad player at a summer tournament is always a hard one. How do you keep sharp if you don’t play? Where does the motivation and the energy and sense of readiness come from?

The Three Lions have been behind three times in the tournament and won all three matches

Bukayo Saka has a goal disallowed for offside in the second half

Phil Foden hit the post with a superb shot from outside the area in the first half

Well maybe Watkins will tell us because here in hot and heavy Dortmund, he was given just nine minutes as a substitute and that was all he needed to turn a tight and engaging semi-final England’s way and propel them fabulously into a first major final on foreign soil.

Finally Southgate made a proactive substitution as Kane was removed with ten minutes left. Once again, he had not been at his best and it looked for all the world as though Watkins was going to be at his most effective in extra-time. The Netherlands had been the better team in the second half.

But the beauty of all great goal scorers is that they are always willing to take a chance, to take a risk. And when Watkins was played speculatively down the right with a minute to go, the shot he delivered through the legs of a defender was so quickly taken and purely struck that it beat the Dutch goalkeeper Bart Verbruggen before he even had time to position himself properly.

And then he was off across the field towards the invading English substitutes. Off on a victory sprint that was fuelled by the kind of adrenaline and ecstasy that only sport can bring. Eyes like saucers, it looked as though it may just take a while for Watkins to adjust to his new status as a hero of English football.

For those of us who had given up on England’s football improving here in Germany, this whole night had been an absolute joy. England, almost without warning, were suddenly the team we had wanted them to be.

Xavi Simons gave the Netherlands the lead in the seventh minute of the semi-final in Dortmund

England were somewhat fortunate to score an equaliser from the penalty spot after Denzel Dumfries (left) caught captain Harry Kane (right) in the area, with VAR awarding the spot-kick

Foden dazzled for England in the first half and came agonisingly close to taking the lead

They didn’t outplay Ronaldo Koeman’s canny Dutch side in the manner they threatened to at times during the first half. Indeed the Dutch had just come off their most sustained spell of pressure in the game when Watkins plunged in the dagger.

Still, though, this performance arrived like the last train just when everybody was threatening to close down the station. Southgate had said beforehand that he sensed it coming. Few of us believed him. Here it was, though, a proper performance delivered with conviction and authority and confidence. Where has all this been over the course of these last few weeks? Who really cares?

Manchester City’s Phil Foden was magnificent for an hour.

Moved in to the middle as part of Southgate’s 3-4-2-1 formation, the freedom and the space suited Foden. He is much better when he is able to jink and sway off either foot, rather than constantly heading infield as he often does when asked to play wide. 

Here, he struck an arrow of a shot against the post in the 31st minute having somehow being previously denied on the line by Denzel Dumfries after shimmying past two players close to goal.

Bellingham was superb, knitting EnglandÂżs forward moves together with precision in Dortmund

Kobbie Mainoo, pictured reacting to Watkins' last-gasp winner, had another excellent game

Bukayo Saka was fabulous also and while Jude Bellingham was not far behind there are probably not enough superlatives to hand out to the young Manchester United midfielder Kobbie Mainoo.

Overall there was a simple freedom about England’s football that was uplifting to see. Suddenly, after three weeks of apparent inner torment and introspection, England’s attacking players brought some of their club form to this stage.

Indeed at times this felt like a Premier League game. Having witnessed so much slow, stilted football from so many nations in Euro 2024, this was a semi-final played on fast forward. The Netherlands started like an orange bull at a gate. The goal that was crashed into the roof of the net by Xavi Simons in only the seventh minute was spellbinding both in power, trajectory and accuracy.

England have grown used to going behind in this tournament, though, and one thing we learned is that it doesn’t faze them.

As the Dutch reverted to a slightly more direct form of football late on, England found themselves on the back foot in a way they hadn’t previously been.

England will face Spain and teenage wonderkid Lamine Yamal in Sunday's Euro 2024 final

Gareth Southgate's side head to Berlin with the wind in their sails and courage in their hearts

Indeed when Saka rammed Kyle Walker’s cross in to the net after his team-mate had delivered from an offside position with ten minutes to go, it was England’s first shot on target of the second period.

There was a twist right at the death though and England are getting rather good at that. Three times this England team have been behind, three times they have won. Spain will have noted that and they will have noted this performance too.

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