England’s march to final an ode to never-say-die spirit | Football News

England’s march to final an ode to never-say-die spirit | Football News

New Delhi: If you ask the supporters of any team whether they would like their team to play beautiful football or win the big trophies, a huge majority will probably choose the trophies. You can play all the attacking football you want and the fans will love you for that but if it doesn’t lead to wins, will it matter as much?

Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring England’s second goal in Dortmund on Wednesday. (AP)
Ollie Watkins celebrates scoring England’s second goal in Dortmund on Wednesday. (AP)

Tournament football isn’t about demolishing teams, it is about finding ways to win even when the chips are down. Throughout Euro 2024, that is exactly what England have done. They did it against Slovakia in the Round of 16, they did it against Switzerland in the quarters and then, with a place in the final on the line, they did it against the Netherlands too.

The 2-1 victory against the Dutch wasn’t like the other knockout matches. Rather, it saw Gareth Southgate’s team turn in their best, most fluent performance to come out on top. Xavi Simons gave Netherlands the early lead with a stunner before a contentious penalty allowed Harry Kane to equalise. The game stayed even until a last-minute strike from substitute Ollie Watkins sealed victory.

This isn’t rope-a-dope but, in footballing terms, it is possibly as close as it can get to that. Muhammad Ali took all the blows that George Foreman could throw during the famous ‘Rumble in the Jungle’ before finally landing the knockout blow. England were on the ropes in the Round of 16 against Slovakia, against Switzerland in the quarters and against the Netherlands too.

But each time, they have found a way to win. Against Slovakia, a Bellingham stunner (90’ + 5) was the equaliser and Kane (91’) got the winner. Bukayo Saka found the equaliser against Switzerland in the 80th minute while Watkins’s strike showed that squeaky bum time is when this team truly comes to life.

England are the first side in UEFA European Championship history to reach the final despite trailing in both the quarter-final and semi-final. It speaks volumes about the kind of mindset that is driving this team forward. They don’t give up until the final whistle.

This isn’t an exciting team but Southgate has them doing the right things in defence and they build from there. According to OptaJoe on X, ‘England have reached two consecutive Euro finals despite averaging 9.1 shots/90 (minutes) in 13 games over those two tournaments.’

Do that in the Premier League and you may not go far. But in a knockout scenario, these numbers matter little. If you can be clinical with the match on the line, you’ll win more than you lose because the opposition will be just as nervous.

For example, Watkins’s winner at 89:59 was the latest winning goal scored in a semi-final at the European Championship/World Cup (excluding extra-time). It was also England’s only shot on target in the second half of this match. Get a chance, make it count.

“Ollie came on and won it. We’re really grateful because I don’t know if I had another half an hour in me. I’m so happy for him. He’s the hero and he saved us,” said Bellingham after the game. “We’ve delivered again. These moments are great. They bring us together as a team and a family. It’s about bringing that into the final.”

England have now reached the final in two (Euro 2020 and Euro 2024) of their four major tournaments under Southgate — they had only done so in one of their previous 23 World Cup/Euro appearances (1966 World Cup) before Southgate’s tenure. It shows them that their method is working.

It did help England that Phil Foden found his rhythm too. He was running all over the park, creating chances and taking shots. This was way more than what he had managed earlier in the tournament and England will want him to do the same against Spain in the final.

The overall movement of the England team was superb as well and that saw them creating space where there was none before.

UEFA technical observer Ole Gunnar Solskjær felt they were excellent with the ball as well. “I really liked their willingness to run in behind and offer an option for a pass as the spaces in between then opened up,” he said.

The final, though, will be different. Mainly because Spain, as they showed against France, are a team that will keep coming at them and they are a mobile unit as well. England will be forced to defend but could fancy their chances on the counter.

It will be fascinating to see which England take to the field for the final. The one we witnessed in the early rounds or the one that we saw against the Dutch? Would a subtle readjustment be in order?

But then again, they might decide to come out and play. It has been a long time since the Three Lions brought some silverware home, but now they are just 90 minutes away from possibly their second major tournament win in history. For now, they’ve surely earned the right to dream.

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