For the neutral, it certainly wasn’t a thriller. At times, both sides seemed more scared at the prospect of losing than excited at the thought of winning.
Chances were few and far between; indeed, Germany had the better opportunities until England stole the lead in the 75th minute thanks to Sterling’s close-range finish.
Playing in front of a partizan 40,000 crowd that made Wembley Stadium feel like it was at capacity, England capitalized on their chances when it mattered.
England head coach Gareth Southgate’s introduction of Jack Grealish in the second half also helped change the course of the match.
As “It’s Coming Home” — the chorus to “Three Lions,” England’s adopted anthem — echoed around Wembley, the English players took a deserved lap of honor and soaked in the adulation of an ecstatic crowd.
Nerves and expectations
Thousands of expectant fans had gathered on Wembley Way — the famous road that leads up to England’s national stadium — several hours before kick off, their nerves manifesting in a cacophony of songs and chants that were never quite in sync.
Small pockets of German fans that made their way through the sea of white shirts were met by vociferous boos; they were massively outnumbered in the 40,000 capacity crowd.
Though as fans joined in with the songs blasted over Wembley’s PA system, you would have been forgiven for thinking that the stands were filled to the venue’s 90,000 capacity — it had been some time since England’s home stadium had bounced and throbbed to an atmosphere quite like this, due to the ongoing Covid restrictions in the country.
To their credit, the German fans gathered in the far corner of the ground continued their attempts at making their voices heard, but the wild, partizan England crowd drowned them out.
The noise — now in the form of boos and jeers — continued throughout the German national anthem, which was barely audible over the home supporters.
England had only ever won one knockout tie in European Championship history, the quarterfinal shootout victory over Spain at Euro ’96.
Perhaps the current group of young English players seemed to be feeling the weight of expectation, their sloppy passing going astray as Germany dominated the opening 10 minutes.
Then England’s defense disintegrated, as Leon Goretzka found himself one-on-one with England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, only to be dragged down clumsily by Declan Rice.
A nervous hush descended over Wembley, the crowd quieted for the first time, as English fans waited nervously for the referee’s decision; cue a collected sigh of relief as Germany was only awarded a free-kick, though Rice was yellow carded.
That moment seemed to galvanize England, who began attacking with some intent for the first time all match. First Sterling brought out a wonderful save from Manuel Neuer, before Harry Maguire’s header from the subsequent corner was comfortably gathered by the German goalkeeper.
As things became more frantic and the decibels increased, Southgate appeared the calmest man inside Wembley Stadium, hands in pockets as he strolled around his technical area, occasionally extending his hand to offer some tactical advice to his players.
England certainly had the upper hand now, but without troubling Germany too much. Maguire rose high at the far post after some nice link up play between Kalvin Phillips and Kieran Trippier, but his effort soared high over the bar when he perhaps should have done better.
Germany gradually began playing its way back into the game and had arguably the game’s best chance when Timo Wener was played through on goal. The angle may have been right, but his effort was still well saved by Pickford.
The away side was now beginning to enjoy the upper hand and the home fans’ frustration boiled over in a chorus of jeers when Trippier had the opportunity to put the ball into the box, but instead opted for a short pass.
England captain and prolific striker Kane has come in for some criticism during Euro 2020, failing to get onto the score sheet — or even get into the game — in all three of England’s group games, and he touched the ball just twice in the opening 30 minutes here.
Germany continued to improve at the start of the second period and almost caught England cold inside the opening five minutes. It took a wonderful save from Pickford to deny Kai Havertz’s long- range strike, which looked for a split second like it would sneak under the crossbar.
However, a jinking run from Sterling, twisting this way and that between the German defense, got the crowd back on its feet. The Manchester City forward looked to have fashioned an opening, but the wall of black shirts quickly closed to block off any opportunity.
Both managers made their first change with just over 20 minutes left to play, with Grealish coming on to an enormous roar as he replaced Bukayo Saka and Joachim Löw opting to bring off Werner for Serge Gnabry.
Then, all of a sudden, England’s fans got the breakthrough they had hoped for.
Shaw found just a little pocket of space on the left side of Germany’s box and was picked out by Grealish, before firing a delicious low cross straight across goal that Sterling was on hand to tap in under Neuer.
Cue pandemonium inside Wembley, as the crowd finally started to believe their tournament hoodoo against Germany was coming to end.
That feeling grew when Thomas Mueller was clean through on goal after Sterling had given the ball away cheaply, but the Bayern Munich forward dragged his shot wide.
At the other end of the pitch, Sterling sunk to his in relief and pounded the Wembley turf.
When Kane converted the second, nodding home Grealish’s cross less than five minutes after Mueller’s miss, this home crowd knew their team was through to the quarterfinals.
The noise inside Wembley was deafening — these supporters haven’t had an occasion like this to cheer for a quarter of a century. They will be hoping to go two steps further than 1996 but, for now, they were just going to enjoy only their second ever knockout win at a European Championship.