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Gareth Southgate is ready for England’s “biggest possible test” in Sunday’s date with destiny against Italy in the European Championship final.
The nation will be at a standstill as the Three Lions attempt to finally add to the World Cup triumph of 1966.
England’s first ever European Championship final is the reward for years of progress and a month to cherish in these challenging, divided times.
After topping Group D, finally beating old foes Germany and swatting aside Ukraine, Harry Kane saw off Denmark 2-1 in extra time to finally end their semi-final hoodoo.
But now comes England’s greatest challenge of Euro 2020 as Roberto Mancini’s Azzurri arrive at Wembley looking to spoil the party.
“I think Denmark have only lost four matches out of 30-odd,” England boss Southgate said. “Italy’s record is even better than that.
“They’ve been a top team for the last couple of years. We followed their progress closely. We know the way they play.
“They play with great energy, they play with great style. They’re, as always, difficult to score goals against so without doubt they deserve to be in the final. They’ve beaten two top teams to get there in Belgium and Spain.
“It’s the biggest possible test we could have. We’ve a day less to recover but we have got to prepare from now and of course it’s wonderful to have that opportunity to take them on.”
Italy are unbeaten in 33 matches in all competitions – quite the response to missing out on qualification for the 2018 World Cup.
England reached the semi-finals in Russia, just as they did at the following year’s Nations League finals, and are now a better, more rounded side.
Such experiences meant they were not overawed when Mikkel Damsgaard opened the scoring with a superb free-kick – the first goal conceded by the Three Lions at Euro 2020 – and had the options to see the game out.
“What we said to them before the game is that they’ve found ways to win matches over the last three or four years in whatever circumstances it’s taken,” Southgate said after a game when Simon Kjaer’s own goal cancelled out Damsgaard’s stunner.
“Whether leading from the front, whether that’s been having to come from behind, whether that’s taken extra time, penalties, they’ve found those solutions.
“We wanted them to have the confidence in that and so I felt very dominant in that period, the last half an hour of normal time.
“And of course the extra time I think we had a bit more legs, a bit more energy. Denmark made a lot of changes early on in the game and weren’t able to change later.
“But the strength of our bench has been an asset, there’s no question about that.
“The depth of the squad is why we are where we are and the mentality of the squad is why we’re in the position we’re in.”
That strength in depth meant Southgate could turn to the likes of Jordan Henderson, Phil Foden and fan favourite Jack Grealish from the bench.
The extra substitutions and quality meant the England boss could afford to replace the latter, who was only brought on in the 69th minute, with LaLiga winner Kieran Trippier midway through extra time to help see out the win.
“We made that decision, not an easy one, but Jack has totally understood it,” Southgate said.
“In the end he said to me ‘well, gaffer it doesn’t matter, I’m not really bothered because we’ve got to the final!’”
Few would argue that the victory was not deserved, but the award of the spot-kick from which the match was settled has been widely debated.
Kane scored after his initial penalty was saved by the outstanding Kasper Schmeichel, with Denmark making their frustration known before and after referee Danny Makkelie pointed to the spot.
Joakim Maehle’s challenge on Raheem Sterling has been pored over since, an incident that occurred when another ball was on the pitch. UEFA has also charged England after somebody shone a laser pen at Schmeichel.
“Look, I saw the ball on the pitch, so I wasn’t sure how that would be dealt with,” Southgate said. “But I saw a game in England before where that happened and the goal wasn’t disallowed.
“I haven’t really seen the penalty situation but a lot of people have asked me the same question (about its legitimacy).
“But I think on the statistics of the game, the number of saves – I mean, Kasper had an incredible game in goal – and I think we had the better of the chances and we created far more chances.
“So, probably on the balance of the game I think we deserved it but if you’re to say to me that the penalty was soft I can understand.
“I’d also just say that I think Denmark have had an incredible tournament.
“I was talking to Simon Kjaer at the end – his leadership, the way the team have played, the way they’ve responded to everything that’s happened to them (after Christian Eriksen suffered a cardiac arrest in their tournament opener) has been immense.
“They gave us an incredible game. We knew it was going to be difficult, we knew that before the autumn, we knew that from the games in the autumn and they’ve got some very, very good players and the coach has done a fantastic job. They played an incredible tournament.”