Harry Kane back to his lethal best, productivity from set-pieces, yet another clean sheet – the fifth out of five – and, for the coup de grace, a first England goal for Jordan Henderson on the occasion of his 62nd cap. This was the night when pretty much everything was picture perfect for Gareth Southgate and his players as they set up a Wembley semi-final against Denmark on Wednesday night.
As England came home from Rome, it was easy to wonder whether football was headed in the same direction and, certainly, the fans of the team inside the Stadio Olimpico thought that way.Ukraine 0-4 England: Euro 2020 quarter-final – as it happenedRead more
Only five times previously have England made it this far at a major tournament and the sense that this group is peaking at the right time was unmistakable. The pre-match expectations had been sky-high after the epic last-16 win over Germany and Ukraine, who had scraped out of their group with three points, were widely viewed as straightforward opposition.
It was a potentially lethal combination, the excess before a crash, but the focus of Southgate’s team was faultless. With an early Kane goal to settle them, they subjected Ukraine to an onslaught in the second half, with Harry Maguire and Henderson heading home from set-pieces and Kane helping himself to another in between. England march on.
England’s first visit to this storied amphitheatre since the 0-0 draw with Italy in 1997 that took them to the World Cup the following year had been extensively framed by the victory over Germany. Never mind burying a 55-year knockout curse, it had hard-wired belief inside the dressing room and throughout the nation.
Southgate, who played in that stalemate against the Italians, wanted to harness the positivity of the Germany win, for England to get onto the front foot and it was difficult to imagine a more perfect start.
Southgate had predicted that Kane was ready for lift-off after his late goal against Germany – his first of the championship – and it took him just four minutes to score again. Raheem Sterling was the provider, cutting inside from the left to thread a lovely low pass through for Kane, who had spun in behind a static Ukraine back-line. He lunged to get to the ball first before lifting it up and past Georgiy Bushchan.Advertisement
It was England’s first and only tie away from Wembley at these finals, although a boisterous contingent of fans with the Three Lions on their chests had found a way to get here from across mainland Europe, “tutto Inglese,” a Roman taxi driver exclaimed about three hours before kick-off and he did not say it with too much admiration.
Southgate switched from the 3-4-3 with which he had out-manoeuvred Germany to a fluid 4-2-3-1, in which the returning Mason Mount roamed from the No 10 role and the full-backs, Kyle Walker and Luke Shaw, were encouraged to push high at the outset. Shaw, in particular, could see a running lane up the left wing with Sterling constantly drifting inside.
Andriy Shevchenko’s starting 3-5-2 formation came to look more like 5-3-2 and, on 36 minutes, he made a bold change, replacing the centre-half, Sergiy Kryvtsov, with the winger, Viktor Tsygankov, and going to 4-3‑3. It was because England’s control was almost total, save for a lapse on 17 minutes by Walker. He left a back pass short for John Stones which allowed Roman Yaremchuk to run and get a shot away from a tight angle. Stones did well to force him wide and Jordan Pickford saved.
Sterling was in the mood, his pace and twinkle toes causing panic in Ukrainian ranks. He had several eye-catching bursts before the interval, with one, when he beat Oleksandr Karavaev to cross, leading to a chance for Declan Rice. The midfielder’s contact was true but the shot was straight at Bushchan. Ukraine briefly looked better in their new system, with Walker unsure who to pick up. He allowed Yaremchuk to run and cross, although Stones once again tidied up.
England might have been further ahead at half-time, with Jadon Sancho, who was given his first start of the finals, guilty of a bad miss on 40 minutes. Sancho, who has agreed to join Manchester United, did everything right, spinning onto Shaw’s cross to open up the shooting chance, only to then strike straight at Bushchan. Shaw was flagged offside in the build-up although replays showed he was on.
England changed up through the gears upon the second-half restart and it was Shaw who was central to the one-two punch that broke Ukraine’s resolve. His free-kick from the left was delivered with whip and pace and Mykola Matvienko, who endured a personal nightmare, allowed himself to be bullied by Maguire. There was only going to be one winner and Maguire’s close-range header flashed past Bushchan.
The third was driven by Mount’s burst and an impish piece of skill by Sterling, whose backheel was made to measure for the overlapping Shaw. He crossed first time and Kane, who lost Matvienko too easily, nodded home.
It was time to plan for the semi-final. Southgate withdrew Rice, who was once again excellent, mindful that he was on a yellow card, and watched his replacement, Henderson, guide home a header from a Mount’s corner in the face of more slapstick Ukrainian marking.
Moments earlier, Kane had extended Bushchan with a vicious left-footed volley and, as Southgate also withdrew another yellow card carrier – Kalvin Phillips – Ukraine simply wanted it all to end.
Credit: The Guardian (Photo Credit: The Guardian)