Denmark are looking to complete a story almost as remarkable as their 1992 European Championship victory. Then they were invited at the 11th hour, 29 years later they were late to the party, waylaid by concern after midfielder Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest on the pitch against Finland.
Having become the first side to qualify for the knockout stages of the competition from nul points after two games, the Eriksen storyline means most neutrals will hope the underdogs have their day.
But England expects. It only takes a few wins and Three Lions fans have a habit of getting carried away. This year is no expection.
Their manager Gareth Southgate might be making a habit of rewriting his country’s narrative this summer, but last night he was dampening down those expectations with a history lesson.
“We don’t have as a good as football history as we like to believe sometimes,” he pointed out.
“These players are making massive strides and breaking barriers all the time, we have broken barriers in this tournament and we have another opportunity to do that today.
“We’ve never been to a European Championship final so we can be the first, which is really exciting for everybody.
“We respect the Danes, I’m obviously old enough to remember them winning it...so I’ve always been a fan of the players that Denmark have produced, their football is incredible.”
If there are great expectations on Southgate, he only has himself to blame.
Having taken England to a World Cup semi-final with a penalty shoot-out win en route, then the first Nations League finals, he has again been rewriting history – winning their opening game for the first time, winning the group with the fewest number of goals scored (two), the first team to start with five clean sheets, the first English side to win a knockout tie without penalties, then doing it again with their biggest ever win.
Under the former Middlesbrough manager England have gone from a quarter-final to a semi-final side but after going out at the last four of the 2018 World Cup and 2019 Nations League, the challenge is to make it third time lucky at what was supposed to be the 2020 European Championship.
“We’ve had expectation during the whole tournament and I think we have dealt with that really well, in the opening game (against Croatia) for example, and in the game with Germany,” said Southgate.
“But we’ve never been to a final so the pressure is what you choose it to be really, I think it is a motivating thing, it is a challenge for us.
“If we were a country that had won five titles and had to match what had gone before I might feel differently – but we are not.
“Denmark have won it so maybe there is more pressure on Denmark to replicate that – but it is not the way we are viewing the game, we know it is about performing on the day.”
Recent history has also been “tough” for Southgate – who had to deal with Covid regulations, injury and suspensions during the October international break.
Denmark won 1-0 at Wembley in a Nations League game during that time, their first loss under the arch since defeat to Spain over two years earlier.
“I have to say, the autumn was a very difficult period for us,” Southgate conceded.
“So many things that we had to deal with from before we named the first squad in September, through to events that happened during the games, just before the games, lack of availability of players.
“The games against Denmark themselves were tough. We knew what their record was going into those games and we tried something with the formation of the team.
“It was a definite shift in how we were viewed. That was a very good learning process for us
“I knew when I took the job what it was. I was under no illusions of what the job was and what it entailed.
“I just think we were in an interesting period: midway through the pandemic, no fans in the stadiums. It was a very different experience. I can’t say I enjoyed the autumn matches at all.
“I thought it was a miserable experience for players.
“We were fulfilling fixtures rather than looking forward to them. I think a lot of teams felt the same way.”
England have certainly recovered since then and, having reached the semi-final of either the European Championship or World Cup for just the sixth time in their history, the Three Lions will be favourites.
Time for talking is over: Page 22