Why Mikkel Damsgaard’s goal could prove a blessing for England at Euro 2020 - Stuart Rayner
It is not something any sane supporter would be saying had Mikkel Damsgaard’s free-kick been the only goal of Wednesday’s Wembley semi-final, but the fact the Three Lions came through it to win is another boost to their confidence ahead of the difficult test Italy will pose in Sunday’s final.
Four minutes before Damsgaard’s viciously whipped and bent free-kick beat Jordan Pickford, it was not conceding that was the bedrock of England’s self-belief. Maybe it is a sign of the positivity building around this history-making team that it going out of the window can somehow instantly be spun as something to be pleased about.
With Harry Maguire imperious in defence since his belated introduction, John Stones quietly efficient alongside him, Kyle Walker outstanding against Denmark, Luke Shaw incredible against Germany and Ukraine, and Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips forming a formidable midfield shield in front of them throughout the tournament, the quality of England’s defending has been of Italian proportions. That four of those who have made the team so tight are Yorkshireman has not been lost on some.
For all the flair it has, this is definitely a “give ‘em nowt” side and with the likes of Kieran Trippier, Tyrone Mings and Jordan Henderson on it, the bench is no more generous.
No country had gone through the first five matches of a European Championship without letting a goal in until former defender Gareth Southgate’s side did in Rome on Saturday.
During Wednesday’s first half against Denmark Pickford passed the milestone for the longest an England goalkeeper had gone without conceding a goal, yet another record to add to a list of records so long it would be keeping the late Norris McWhirter busy if only he were still with us.
Pickford took the honour from Sheffield-born Gordon Banks, who went 720 minutes unbeaten in 1966. You might remember how that ended.
That too was a run that ended in a semi-final, Eusebio scoring a penalty when, with Banks beaten, Jack Charlton decided to show his goalkeeper how it was done in the days long before handling on the line was a goalscoring offence.
It was a squeaky-bum-time goal, rather than one to put Portugal in front, and England did not trail in that World Cup until Helmut Haller opened the scoring in the final, the first of two West German goals on English football’s most famous day in the sun.
Much as we all pine for tricky wingers, creative midfielders and deadly strikers, at the top levels of football it is water-tight defences which tend to keep the trophy engravers in business.
This 2021 England team now know what it is to be behind in the tournament, and more importantly, they know they can get through it.
They had a small wobble, but they did not fall over.
At 4-0 against the Ukraine, Pickford had a couple of the rushes of blood which have been an occasional hallmark of his, moreso in club football, but most Englishmen were either two busy partying or pinching themselves to pay all that much attention.
Wednesday was the Everton goalkeeper’s least convincing match of the competition.
Shortly before Damsgaard’s brilliant goal he surrendered possession trying to roll the ball out, and when he gave the ball away again minutes after conceding, manager Southgate was shouting at his players to just calm down.
But Pickford did, and so did his team-mates.
They got back into the game with a Simon Kjaer own goal forced by Harry Kane’s pass, Bukayo Saka’s cross and Raheem Sterling’s run, and dominated the second half, refusing to panic when Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel started to produce a performance so good, it could have been in danger of getting him deported if England had lost.
Even Schmeichel could do nothing when Kane was first to the extra-time penalty he saved, though.
It was vindication for England’s calmness and self-belief in adversity.
Anchored by centre-backs in Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini with 219 caps between them, and with a goalkeeper of Gianluigi Donnarumma’s quality, Italy have been miserly this summer too.
They have conceded a whopping two goals on their way to the final, a Spanish equaliser which took their semi-final to extra-time, then a shoot-out, and a Romelu Lukaku penalty which ultimately proved no more than a scant consolation.
In both those knockout games, Italy showed bags of spirit (and a few dark arts) but in football the bad times can be good if you learn from them, as England did after consecutive semi-final defeats in the World Cup and Nations League.
Italy have been behind for just 10 minutes of the last 23 matches, between Edin Dzeko’s Nations League goal in Florence in September, and Stefano Sensi’s deflected equaliser. Only four of Sunday’s likely starters – Donnarumma, Bonucci, Nicolo Barella and Lorenzo Insigne – were on the pitch at the time.
If England, who have made a habit of flying out of the blocks in games, were to score first on Sunday you can imagine a furtive glance from manager Roberto Mancini across to his good friend and assistant Gianluca Vialli.
Southgate will be desperately hoping it is an emotion he does not have to deal with, though it would be amazing if whatever course Sunday’s game takes was a straight-forward one for the home fans so desperate for success after 55 years without.
If Italy do get in front, though, England know their only task will be to beat the Azzurri’s formidable defensive unit, not the demons in their own head too. It is a nice place to be, even if it did not feel that way as Damsgaard’s free-kick hit the back of the net.