England clearing psychological hurdles with every step forward at Euro 2020 but must be wary of driven Denmark

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 (Pool via REUTERS)
(Pool via REUTERS)

Gareth Southgate credited England's "special spirit" as the biggest reason for their seamless progress through Euro 2020 and their run to Wednesday's semi-final has come via a series of psychological tests.

First, there was Croatia in re-match of the 2018 World Cup semi-final. For Southgate and his veterans of Russia, Croatia were an opponent still associated with the defeat in Moscow, when England displayed familiar big-tournament neuroses and shortcomings.

Then, came the return of football's oldest international rivalry with the visit of Scotland to Wembley in an occasion described by Southgate as "unique".

After the Czech Republic, Germany were the next visitors in a grudge match made more significant by the weight of 55 years years of hurt and Southgate's own personal demons in the fixture.

Following the emotional and historic win over Joachim Low's side, Saturday's meeting with Ukraine represented another, very different type of mental challenge in the new conditions of the Stadio Olimpico.

Southgate had warned his players and the country that they faced "a moment of danger", with the manager concerned about complacency, flatness and the pressure of expectation against Andriy Shevchenko's hard-running underdogs.

Through all of these hurdles, England have passed unscathed, their progress never once in any serious doubt.

Some of the football as been impressive – particularly when they released the handbrake at the start of the second half in Rome – but the defining feature of their victories has been control.

The goalless draw with Scotland was the closest Southgate's side have come to falling short but they are yet to lose their grip on a game, nor have they ever looked close to suffering from the kind of collective anxiety that has plagued previous England teams, particularly in the knockouts.

It is not supposed to be this way, and England's form so far feels as much as victory for collective mentality as it does for Southgate's tactics or selections, or the players' individual quality.

The squad's steely mindset is a testament to the thorough work the manager has done over the course of a meticulous five-year plan, which remains well ahead of schedule.

"Teams have to go on a journey and they have to go through some pain sometimes to be able to progress," the manager said after the win over Ukraine.

"We've had some great nights over the last four years but we've also had some painful nights – and we’ve learned from all of those experiences.

"That's helped us prepare for another tournament and the individual games, with the understanding of each other and how we want two play.

"But also with the recognition that, with moments like tonight, we didn’t want to take a backwards step, we wanted to grasp the opportunity rather than hope we might win or let fate have a chance to play its part. I thought the players were decisive and ruthless all night."

Next up is another psychological challenge against a side whose togetherness and spirit will be a match for England's.

Denmark's mission at the Finals goes way beyond football after the events of their opening game against Finland, when their talisman Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest of the pitch. He faces an uncertain future.

England should beware an opponent with a just cause.

Asked if his players had the "minerals" to go one step further at Wembley on Wednesday, Southgate said: "That's the challenge for us now.

"We had two games with Denmark in the autumn, I knew what a good side they were before [the tournament].

"They’ve proved that again in this tournament. They're obviously riding a wave of emotion with what happened with Christian, as well, and that’s understandable. It's going to be a fantastic game to be a part of.

"We have got more experience as a group of these sorts of games and individually the players have experience of those games which is definitely helpful but we’ve got to do that now on Wednesday night."

For England there is also the added pressure of breaking new ground.

As disinterested as this squad is in history and the failings or achievements of the past, they will know that a European Championship semi-final at Wembley is familiar territory, whereas going one step further would be history. Denmark, by contrast, know what it means to be European champions.

"It's not so much pressure for this team," Southgate insisted. "It's another challenge that they have the chance to take on. At the moment they're rising to those challenges."

Remarkably, perhaps the biggest concern for England is that they are yet to suffer a setback of any sort on the pitch, having still not conceded a goal, and should their defence finally be breached on Wednesday it will be shock that they have to respond to.

On the evidence of the previous games, this squad is well equipped to do so.

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