Paul Merson says England have achieved a “major feat” in reaching the Euro 2020 final and praised “brave” manager Gareth Southgate for making the tough decisions to help them get there.
It was a historic night for English football at Wembley on Wednesday as England overcame Denmark to reach the final of Euro 2020 – their first international final since 1966.
After a frantic first half saw Simon Kjaer’s own goal cancel out Mikkel Damsgaard’s stunning free-kick, captain Harry Kane ended England’s 55-year wait for a major men’s final appearance with a dramatic extra-time winner, converting the rebound after Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel had saved his contentiously-awarded penalty.
It sparked wild celebrations across the country and set up another Wembley showdown, this time with Italy on Sunday.
Former England international Merson, speaking to Sky Sports News, gives his verdict on a fantastic night for England before looking ahead to that long-awaited final appearance where Italy stand between them and a maiden European crown.
‘England players should be proud’
I didn’t personally think I’d see England in another final in my lifetime.
I’ve seen some unbelievable England football teams over years, even when I played and before I played, and for this team to get in the final is a major feat.
They should be extremely proud of themselves.
To go 1-0 down and come back to win the match was amazing. There’s never a bad time to score a goal, but I thought it was an important time to score the equaliser.
When Denmark went 1-0 up with a phenomenal free kick, they broke about a minute before Raheem Sterling’s miss and I was worried we looked a bit too open. I just wanted them to get to half-time and have someone with experience tell them just to calm down so they could let Gareth Southgate sort it all out.
But thankfully, minutes after Sterling’s miss, we scored, and it was a big goal. To go into the break at 1-1 was massive for the team.
‘It was a home penalty’
Denmark would have been disappointed if they hadn’t have been given a penalty for the same thing in the same situation.
That’s the way I look at it.
Yes, it was a tight call, but it happened so quickly because Sterling moves at such pace.
Before VAR, I would call it a home penalty. You wouldn’t get it away from home, but you’d get it at home.
‘Denmark’s use of subs was poor’
At the start of the game England were nervy, but you do have to give them respect.
After Denmark’s goal we looked a bit shaky for a while, but to get the goal was crucial and after that we were very good.
The end of the second half and then extra time was very good from England.
Although, it was poor management from Kasper Hjulmand. To have that many subs at your disposal but leave yourself short in extra time was pretty poor.
Full credit to ‘brave’ Southgate
On the other hand, you’ve got to hand it to Gareth Southgate.
What a brave manager he is. Through the whole of this tournament he’s made big decisions, big enough decisions that if they were to go wrong, he’d probably be out of a job the next day.
Taking Jack Grealish off was another big one. Taking someone off like Jack, who when the game really opens up is the one player who can really punish the opposition other than Sterling.
But that is what I like about Gareth. From day one he’s made the tough calls. From Kieran Trippier playing left-back against Croatia, every decision he’s had has been a big one and he’s done it his way.
If he’d have failed it would have been his way. There would have been no regrets or wondering why he hadn’t listened to himself or his coaches.
Fair play to him for that.
‘Sterling’s mental strength is phenomenal’
And what more can you say about Raheem Sterling?
He was absolutely outstanding. The kid is phenomenal. His strength of character, his fitness and the way he runs at players.
Let’s be honest, he did miss a very good chance. It was a sitter. It wasn’t a good save because it just hit Kasper Schmeichel. It was a bad miss, but you know what I like about him, a minute later when Bukayo Saka goes down the right, who is trying to get in the box and score?
He’s not just sitting outside the box worrying about going in again and missing another chance. His mental strength is phenomenal, and I’m so pleased for him.
He gets a lot of stick this kid, and I say kid because he’s still so young.
For me, he’s been the player of the tournament. He’s been outstanding from the very first minute of the tournament right up until the end of extra time on Wednesday. Look at the run he makes at the end of extra time. It’s just phenomenal.
I’ve also got to give someone a mention, who again I thought was outstanding against Denmark and it’s Kyle Walker.
He was brilliant. I thought his pace and everything else about his performance was top drawer.
More big decisions to come, Gareth…
Gareth has got more big decisions to make.
It’s a different game again and Italy are a very good side. They are a very good counter-attacking team.
But Gareth won’t worry about it. He’ll just name his team and that’s it.
It’s the next game and it is horses for courses and if he has to change it, he will.
That’s what I like about him. I have to give him A+ for the way he’s been with his decision making.
‘England need to disrupt Jorginho’
I hope England win, I really do, but this is going to be a hard game.
We’ve got to get around Jorginho and disrupt him. We’ve got to stop him getting on the ball and stop them playing out from the back.
I haven’t seen a team in this competition move the ball so quickly from the goalkeeper to the forward line. It’s a really quick transition and it is all so smooth. We have to stop that at source. If they start going through us like that it’s going to be a big problem.
But there is no doubt they will worry about us.
The pace we have in attack and now Harry Kane looks like scoring all the time.
It’s a proper game – a worthy final. They are the best two teams in the competition.
‘Clever’ Kane will make Italy think
Kane is one of the cleverest footballers around.
He doesn’t want to get in a battle with Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci. He knows they will want a battle because they are warriors. But he’ll be dropping off and when he does that, he can put a ball thought the eye of a needle just like he did for Saka for England’s first goal.
So, Kane will cause Italy plenty of problems. They will be thinking do they come, or do they go and the one thing I liked with England against Denmark with Saka and Sterling either side of Kane is that they are willing to run without the ball.
I saw in the friendlies before the tournament that we weren’t that willing to run without the ball, but Saka and Sterling are willing to do it.
If you are willing to run without the ball, you cause so many problems, just like we saw with Liverpool when they were at their best in the year they won the Premier League. Mohamed Salah and Sadio Mane did it for Liverpool and when you have players willing to do it, it is so hard to stop.
England have to keep doing it against Italy and Kane is such an intelligent footballer. For me, he’ll probably go on and win the golden boot.
‘Italy will be worried about England; Wembley a factor’
Italy will be worried about England.
We are playing at Wembley. Look at the fans. At the end of the game the hairs on my arms were standing up.
You could really feel it and it is a massive advantage. It’s a goal for England the fans being there.
Italy will be quietly confident, of course they will. They are unbeaten in 33 games. But they will have their concerns with England. They know they are up against a very good England team that has got pace, is very fit and includes players that can change the game.
We’ve also got superb players coming off the bench. Anyone that comes off the bench is not weakening the team. There are not many countries in world football that can do that.
So, Italy will be worried but at the same time, England should also be worried about Italy too, of course.
And finally… Merson’s prediction: ‘We’re set for a thriller’
I think it’s going to be a thriller.
There will be goals galore in this game, in my opinion.
Even though both teams are very good defensively, you are talking about a lot of football matches being played over a short space of time. There’s been a lot of football since September up until now.
I can just see a lot of goals. There is so much movement in both teams and a lot of pace.
I am going to go 3-2 to England after extra time.
I just think both these sides are electric going forward and they will cause each other problems. But England can shade it. Whatever happens it is going to be some match.
Podcast: It’s nearly home… How the ‘new England’ could go all the way
Drink it in… England are in a major tournament final for the first time since 1966 after their extra-time win over Denmark at Wembley in semi-final of Euro 2020.
Kate Burlaga is joined by Rob Dorsett, Pete Smith and Nick Wright to discuss an historic night, and whether this ‘new England’ side can go all the way against Italy on Sunday.