Southgate vindicated as super subs send England into Euros final

England manager Gareth Southgate's substitutions combined to book a place in the Euro 2024 final (Odd ANDERSEN)
England manager Gareth Southgate's substitutions combined to book a place in the Euro 2024 final (Odd ANDERSEN)

England took a long time to get going in Germany but march on to Berlin to face Spain in Sunday's Euro 2024 final buoyed by more late drama and their best performance of the tournament to beat the Netherlands 2-1.

Ollie Watkins was the unlikely hero for the Three Lions as the Aston Villa striker smashed in a stoppage-time winner in Dortmund, having only played 20 minutes in the previous five games.

So often derided for his failure to change games from the bench despite the depth of talent at his disposal, England boss Gareth Southgate could drink in the acclaim in Dortmund as his bold substitutions made a decisive impact.

"We all want to be loved, right? So, when you're doing something for your country and you're a proud Englishman and when you don't feel that back and when all you read is criticism, it's hard," Southgate told reporters.

"So, to be able to celebrate a second final is very, very special."

With the game slipping out of his side's grasp after a dominant first half, Southgate replaced captain Harry Kane and Phil Foden with Watkins and Cole Palmer 10 minutes from time.

The two subs combined as Watkins spun onto Palmer's pass and fired low and hard into the far corner to send England into a first ever major tournament final on foreign soil.

Spain will be favourites for the final after their near flawless progress through the tough side of the draw, eliminating hosts Germany and France in the process.

England's route to the final has been far more winding and less pleasing on the eye.

But after surviving thanks to late equalisers against Slovakia and Switzerland in the previous two rounds, England finally produced some substance to match their resilience against the Dutch.

Southgate said on the eve of the game his players' mentality had changed from a fear of failure to being inspired by what could be by the end of this week.

- Foden takes centre stage -

For the third consecutive game England had to come behind as Xavi Simons' blistering strike delighted the hordes who had painted Dortmund's famous yellow wall orange for the night after just seven minutes.

Yet, if the character of Southgate's men had shone through in the dying embers against Slovakia and Switzerland to keep their tournament alive, this time the response was immediate.

Kane tested Bart Verbruggen before winning England a controversial penalty as Denzel Dumfries caught him while attempting a block.

He missed a key penalty against France at the 2022 World Cup but showed no sign of nerves to slam the spot-kick low and hard past Verbruggen to move into a share of the lead in the battle for the Golden Boot on three goals.

Kane's sixth knockout goal also set a new European Championship record.

Buoyed by the equaliser, the team that looked laboured and lost for five games suddenly showed why they were tipped as favourites for the tournament before a ball was kicked.

Southgate's switch of system since the quarter-final to get both Foden and Jude Bellingham playing in the central roles they have thrived for Manchester City and Real Madrid was suddenly paying dividends.

Foden has so far had to live in Bellingham's shadow at the Euros, despite winning the Premier League player of the year accolade in City's title triumph.

This time Foden was the main man, tearing the Dutch defence to shreds with his subtle touches and piercing runs in behind.

Dumfries denied him a first goal of the tournament by centimetres by clearing his effort off the line and then he struck the post from distance.

England's energy reserves after two bouts of extra time were tested in a far more sedate second half.

But Southgate learned his lesson from defeat by Croatia in the 2018 World Cup semi-finals and the Euro 2020 final against Italy by injecting fresh energy from the bench.

He was rewarded with a second consecutive Euros final and the chance to end 58 years of hurt for English football in Berlin.

"The lads are singing in the dressing room, but they're straight in the ice," said Southgate, with his eyes firmly on the prize.