England can finally end 55 years of major tournament misery with a Euro 2020 semi-final victory against Denmark on Wednesday, after Italy beat Spain in a dramatic penalty shoot-out to book their place in the final.
Gareth Southgate’s side are bidding to reach the European Championship final for the first time as they try to banish the ghosts of England’s ill-fated past.
Since winning the 1966 World Cup, England have reached only four major semi-finals, losing at the 1990 and 2018 World Cups, as well as Euro 1968 and 1996, when Southgate infamously missed a crucial penalty in the shoot-out against Germany.
Those agonising defeats have been etched in the psyche of English football ever since.
But Southgate has overseen the emergence of a vibrant young team unconcerned by the trials and tribulations of their failed predecessors in the England shirt.
Yet to concede a goal in their five unbeaten matches in the tournament, England underlined their potential with a 2-0 last-16 win against old rivals Germany.
In the quarter-finals, a 4-0 rout of Ukraine in Rome fuelled dreams of Euro glory.
Now England are back at Wembley for the Denmark showdown and, with the final also being held in London, Southgate know the Three Lions have a golden opportunity to make history.
“We don’t have as a good a football history as we like to believe sometimes,” he said.
“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 tomorrow.
“We’ve never been to a European Championship final so we can be the first, which is really exciting for everybody.”
England has been gripped by Euro fever since the cathartic victory against Germany and, along with 60,000 lucky fans at Wembley, millions more in homes and pubs across the country will watch the semi-final on television.
British Prime Minister Johnson summed up the mood of an expectant nation as he said: “Gareth Southgate and the England squad have done the nation proud in the Euros, and tonight we will all be wishing them the best of luck in getting to the final. Bring it home!”
‘Has football ever come home?’
However, England’s ‘Football’s coming home’ anthem — roared by fans at Wembley after the Germany game — doesn’t sit well with everyone.
Denmark keeper Kasper Schmeichel took a cheeky swipe at the supposedly triumphalist song, saying: “Has it ever been home? I don’t know, have you ever won it?”
Surprise semi-finalists Denmark, who won the Euro in 1992, can count on the support of many outside England after their emotional campaign.
Rocked by the cardiac arrest suffered by their star midfielder Christian Eriksen during their first match against Finland, Denmark went into their last group game without a point.
But, with Eriksen on the mend after the shocking incident, Kasper Hjulmand’s team have embarked on a three-match winning run which has taken them to a first semi-final in 29 years.
Eriksen has been invited to the Wembley final by UEFA and Hjulmand has urged his underdogs to make it a date with their team-mate.
“We still play for and with him. There’s no doubt about that. That’s the only thing I can say about Christian,” he said.
“It’s really something that makes us do as much as we can. I hope that if he comes to the final that we’re going to be playing it. It would be amazing.”
Italy waiting in final
Italy will be waiting for England or Denmark in Sunday’s showpiece after beating Spain 4-2 on penalties following a thrilling 1-1 draw at Wembley.
Roberto Mancini’s men took the lead when Federico Chiesa curled a fine finish into the far corner in the 60th minute.
Spanish substitute Alvaro Morata equalised 10 minutes from full-time with a clinical strike from Dani Olmo’s pass.
Manuel Locatelli and Olmo exchanged misses to start the shoot-out before the much-maligned Morata’s effort was saved by Gianluigi Donnarumma.
Jorginho stepped up to convert Italy’s winner with his trademark hop-step.
“I cannot describe my emotion by words. It was a tough match. Spain were great but we come back here on July 11 for the final. We fought until the end and we did it,” Chiesa said.
Italy last reached the final in 2012, when they were beaten by Spain, and they also lost to France in the 2000 title match.
The Azzurri, four-time world champions, are unbeaten in 33 matches as they aim to win a first Euro title since 1968.