Harry Kane has scored three goals in England’s last two victories
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Gareth Southgate and Harry Kane have assured the nation that England are ready to go a step further and reach a major tournament final, with the captain also warning Denmark that he is unstoppable.
England can reach their first final since 1966 by beating Denmark in the semi-finals of the European Championship at Wembley on Wednesday night.
Manager Southgate is expected to stick with the back four that kept England’s fifth consecutive clean sheet in the victory over Ukraine and could hand a recall to fit-again Bukayo Saka in place of Jadon Sancho, with Mason Mount in line to keep his place.
Jack Grealish, who did not get on against Ukraine, has also been ear-marked for a special role from the substitutes’ bench if the game is tight or England fall behind.
England have already matched their achievement at the 2018 World Cup, but both Southgate and Kane believe they are now better equipped to get to a final.
“Where I have confidence in this group is they are so calm in terms of their outlook on this game, their preparation for this game, their understanding for what’s coming,” said Southgate.
“There are so many leaders in the group, so it does feel different and understandably it would because three years ago a lot of them had had five or six caps and not as much European football experience, not as many experiences with us.
“I think without a doubt we’re in a better place and I, as manager of this group, am very calm about how I see them at the moment in their preparation.
“So many of the senior players now have strong voices in the dressing room and are delivering the right messages. We only feel the need to step in if there are things that haven’t been picked up by them at that stage. We won’t need anything extra special in those moments because the team are ready.”
Pick your England team to face Denmark
Kane has been responsible for having the final word in the dressing-room on matchdays and, on the messages he tries to get across, the striker said: “It is just probably reminders of what we want to do and what we want to achieve. The players are ready by then anyway.
“As a team, we are more experienced in high pressure games, not just internationals but also at club level we have had a lot of players playing Champions League finals, Premier League title runs, cup finals.
“So I feel like the team understands these situations better: semi-finals and finals. Of course, we can always learn from 2018, but it is down to us to show that and I feel we are maybe a bit more experienced and understand the situation.”
Kane goes into the semi-final in impressive form, having scored three goals in England’s last two victories, but Chelsea defender Andreas Christensen has claimed Denmark have a plan to stop him.
England Denmark poll
Asked if he can be stopped when he is playing well and scoring, Kane said: “To be honest, probably not. When I am playing at my best, I feel like I can score goals or provide assists against anyone.
“My game understanding in terms of what I need to do to not just help myself but the team is probably at its best in my career so far.
“If you try and stop me, then that’s ok because you have got other players who are just as good, who are going to cause problems. It is not the case that if you stop me, you stop us as a team. We have plenty of threats, plenty of options, plenty of different ways of playing.
“We have a great opportunity and have put ourselves in a great position, in major tournaments you have to take these opportunities because they don’t come around too often.
“When you are at club level you are playing in the Premier League, Champions League and cups every year so you have more of a chance of being successful.
“Major tournaments are every two years, so it shortens the opportunity. We had one in 2018 which we didn’t quite grab and now it’s about learning from that.”
Comment: This is the night to make ‘new’ Wembley feel like home again
by Sam Wallace
Underneath Wembley Stadium, near the dressing rooms, a picture adorns the wall of David Beckham’s famous 2001 equaliser against Greece – one of the most celebrated moments of the 21st century England team that was neither in a tournament, nor even at Wembley.
It was a point raised by Gareth Southgate on Tuesday when he contemplated the semi-final that lay ahead, and the significance of Wembley itself and what it means these days? Not much, was Southgate’s reflection when he mentioned the picture from that World Cup qualifier, during a period when new Wembley was being rebuilt.
There was a time when footballers would measure their careers, in part, according to whether they had played there, but it feel less that way now.
What modern Wembley needed, Southgate concluded, was a great game to define it. What better than a European Championship semi-final and, all things being well for England, a final too on Sunday evening?
Indeed, if one had to think of the most memorable night at the Wembley Stadium that is just 14 years old it is hard to look past Nov 21, 2007, when Croatia won a game England only needed to draw and Steve McClaren’s umbrella became the enduring symbol of English failure.
The old stadium had Bobby Moore and Geoff Hurst and scores of sun-drenched FA Cup finals.
Bobby Charlton raises the trophy after England's victory in the 1966 World Cup final at the old Wembley
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For Southgate, a keen observer of the game who first came to Wembley as a teenage ballboy for the 1987 FA Trophy, there was characteristic bluntness about the £780 million stadium that has been variously, for the Football Association, an over-budget embarrassment, a roaring success and a saleable asset.
“Wembley has a fantastic history, of course, but a lot of those memories, for those of us old enough to remember, would be from the old stadium,” he said. “I don’t expect Denmark to come being fearful of Wembley. I think they’ve got experienced players and they’ll enjoy playing there.”
The history of the stadium – of any stadium – Southgate said “relies on those iconic moments”. He talked about the 1966 World Cup final and “big boxing events”. As for the glass and steel modern Wembley, it has never seen anything like the one – potentially two – England games that lie ahead. “This tournament … we’ve had the chance to have some very high-profile games already and achieve some big moments,” he said. “There are pictures of iconic England moments as you drive into the [Wembley] dressing rooms, but some of them aren’t even from finals competitions.”
His young players, Southgate has long established, are unburdened by the past. One suspects that many of them have only a very sketchy idea of England’s long and not-so-illustrious tournament history and it is probably better like that.
Denmark won at Wembley against England as recently as October, a game that came, Southgate said, at the worst period he has experienced as manager of the team. “It was the start of a period I felt a high level of criticism and judgment,” he said.
Southgate does not often reference public criticism. Three days before the Nations League defeat by Denmark, which included Harry Maguire’s early red card, he had beaten Belgium, the world’s No 1-ranked side. Southgate’s main complaint was the nature of the Covid restrictions and the effect they had on his team. “We were fulfilling fixtures rather than looking forward to them,” he said.
The team had been unable to do the things he valued – eat together, socialise together. “A miserable experience” was how Southgate described it. “So much of what we are about as a team is this social part and this connection with each other.” The lockdown had been long, the release of football in the extended 2019-2020 season had been intense, and now, as a manager, he found himself under fire.
“I knew when I took the job what it was,” he said. “I was a kid watching Sir Bobby [Robson] and Graham Taylor. I played for Terry [Venables], for Glenn [Hoddle], for Sven [Goran Eriksson], for Kevin [Keegan]. I was under no illusions of what the job entailed. I just think we were in an interesting period: midway through the pandemic, no fans in the stadiums. It was a very different experience. I can’t say I enjoyed the autumn matches at all.”
Now he is again elevated to the position of England’s game-changer, vanquisher of Germany, independent thinker, general-purpose national sage – not that it seems much of a preoccupation for him.
If he knows what the reaction of the last week has been like, post-Germany, then he never hints at it. The next five days have the power to change everything: the national team’s history, the players’ lives and even the new Wembley.
The latter thus far a commercial success but lacking the magic of its predecessor.