England banish ghosts of the past as Gareth Southgate silences his critics in Germany win

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·5-min read
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 (POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

The future starts here.

England are on their way to the quarter-finals – Germany are going home.

Gareth Southgate’s team not only booked their place in the last eight of the Euros, but began to rewrite the narrative of one of football’s most enduring rivalries.

So it wasn’t just talk. More rhetoric before the inevitable crushing disappointment that this fixture brings for those with Three Lions on the shirt.

This was a generation unencumbered by the past, we were told.

This ‘new’ England was a team unburdened by fear. The shirt no longer weighed heavily on their shoulders.

Easy enough to say – but for those of us who have seen it all before, we needed some convincing.

And so it came from, first, Raheem Sterling and then Harry Kane to ensure the remaining four or five minutes would turn Wembley into a festival, rather than a cauldron of angst.

But it was a performance that was about so much more than just the goal-scorers.

It was about Southgate’s game plan – his bold decision to name Bukayo Saka in his starting XI to lift the crowd and shake the Germans.

It was about Jordan Pickford with two big saves and a game of chicken with Thomas Muller that saw the German legend drag a one-on-one wide and, with it, blow the chance of a comeback.

It was about Luke Shaw, shaking off the latest broadside from Jose Mourinho to continue his own route to redemption.

It was also about Jack Grealish – stepping off the bench and turning the game.

There were heroes all over the pitch for England – backing up their words where it counted and making so many others eat theirs.

Scotland, anyone?

That dismal display seems as irrelevant now as all those old failures against Germany.

That is what one England player after another has told us over the past week – but it is difficult to look forward when the past keeps coming back to haunt you.

That is precisely what Germany have represented to England – and only once that ghost was laid to rest could we believe the message coming out of the Three Lions camp.

After all their manager was the fall guy for one of the most painful defeats inflicted by this particular rival, with his approach to tournament football – not least penalties – shaped by his experience of Euro ‘96.

This group of players are more likely to view Portugal as a perennial thorn in the side – but even back-to-back shoot-out defeats at the turn of millennium pale in comparison to the significance of two semi-final heartbreaks at the hands of Germany.

So it was always going to be fascinating to see how this new generation reacted when it came to the crunch.

This was an opportunity to bust myths and break the curse – not just against Germany, but at major tournaments in general.

Germany are not alone in crushing England’s dreams. They are in good company.

So the theory goes, England raise their game against better opposition. That may be true – but they are also invariably beaten as that opposition improves.

Be it Argentina, Brazil, Italy, Croatia, the list goes on. Especially in this particular competition with a win on penalties against Spain their only previous victory in the knockout stages.

This was the chance to make history – just as they did when winning their opening game at a Euros for the first time with victory against Croatia at the start of the tournament.

They are hardly big steps to overcome, but victory in this manner was a giant leap for the nation.

This was a game that could so easily have gone the way of so many others, but this is a different England – a team that grew into the game and did not lose heart even as momentum dipped.

A tentative start was brought to life by Saka, who was the brightest spark of any player in white in the first half with his dribbles putting Germany on notice of his threat.

It inspired Sterling to get in on the act, too, shimmying on the edge of the box and forcing a save from Manuel Neuer.

It was one of a series of runs from the Manchester City forward that disrupted Germany’s shape.

Another run just before the break presented Kane with best chance of the half as the ball ricocheted to him six yards out. The striker should have fired first time, but opted to take a touch, which was too heavy and allowed Mats Hummels to rescue the situation.

Germany could have opened the scoring earlier when Timo Werner burst through, but was denied by the feet of Pickford on the angle.

England’s goalkeeper was at full stretch to tip over Kai Havertz’ effort just after the break.

Southgate has been accused of failing to react decisively enough in these moments. Not so on this occasion.

He answered the crowd’s call for Grealish and he turned the game being heavily involved in both goals.

The breakthrough came on 75 minutes as Sterling set off on another dribble goalwards.

He laid off to Kane, who shifted it sideways to Grealish.

With the blood pumping through his veins, he must have been tempted to go for goal, but moved the ball on again to Luke Shaw, whose first time cross was turned in by Sterling.

Germany should have equalised moments later when Muller went clear, but as Pickford stood tall, he fired wide.

There was still time for Kane’s crowning moment and it was Grealish who provided the perfect cross for England’s captain to head home and send Wembley into raptures.

It’s Coming Home, they chanted.

Maybe so. But not before a stop off in Rome on Saturday.

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