Damian Szymanski has headed in a stoppage time equaliser as Poland drew 1-1 with England to end the visitors’ perfect record in World Cup qualifying Group I.
After 120 grinding minutes the deciding penalty was unfortunately burdened upon young 19-year-old Bukayo Saka, who had his shot saved by player of the tournament goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, breaking 56 million English hearts and sending the Euro 2020 title to Rome.
So much hope and promise crushed in an instant after what was a rollercoaster two hours of football that eventually saw the Azzurri triumph in this competition for the first time since 1968.
So where to for England? With such a short turnaround before the 2022 World Cup, what needs changing in this side that can take the Three Lions that extra mile to finally get a trophy? There are certainly more positives than negatives to take out of this tournament.
England’s group stage could be considered somewhat underwhelming. Two 1-0 wins and a nil-all draw did the job in taking them top of the group but didn’t exactly strike fear into the rest of the competition. A 2-0 victory over Germany in the Round of 16, however, sparked nationwide belief, breaking a streak of losses against their bitter rivals and indulging a bit of revenge for the famous Lampard ‘no-goal’ incident of 2010.
A resounding 4-0 win over Ukraine in the quarter-finals finally showed England’s attacking flair, giving the fans some great viewing entertainment. Capping off this was an extra-time victory in the semi-finals over an inspired Denmark side to send England to the final against the Italians.
The sight of a stadium full to the brim with supporters in a final was something to give any neutral goosebumps. Never will any football player of supporter take fans in a stadium for granted again.
A home final at Wembley was a massive advantage for England, and perhaps it got to the Italians from the start, as within the first two minutes Luke Shaw found himself at the back post to fire in a half-volley off of a Kieran Trippier cross. Limbs everywhere. Just his fourth professional goal, Luke Shaw is coming off the season of a lifetime and a fantastic Euro tournament in which he picked up three assists, establishing himself as one of the best left-backs in the world.
From this moment, however, there really wasn’t that much going forward for England. The ageing partnership of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t tested as much as it should’ve been by a pace-filled England side, and Donnarumma barely had a save to make.
Federico Chiesa was the threat for the Azzurri, creating havoc for England defenders. Emerson too from left back had a stellar game, filling the boots of the injured Leonardo Spinazzola admirably. The goal for Italy would eventually come off a corner, with a scrappy goal-line scramble seeing the ball eventually poked in by Bonucci.
So how would Southgate respond? Jack Grealish made his entrance in extra time, but it was too late. While Italy were on top, Grealish could’ve been crucial for getting England some field position by drawing fouls in the offensive half. Mason Mount, while an exceptional player, was largely anonymous against Italy, so that replacement could’ve come earlier. Bukayo Saka replaced Kieran Trippier and had a few sparks of energy, notably when he was held back while on the brink of burning past Chiellini, but he was contained well for the most part.
In the 119th minute Southgate thrust Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho onto the field, both established penalty takers. On paper it seemed like a safe decision. But come the penalty shootout the mental factor of having the pressure of taking your first touch of the ball in a sudden-death scenario appeared to take its toll.
After successful shots from Harry Kane Harry Maguire, Rashford dragged his penalty onto the left post after attempting to hold his run to judge the movement of the keeper. This would be followed by Sancho, who put his shot at an easy height for Donnarumma to repel. Jordan Pickford would restore hope with a massive save on the normally perfect Jorginho, only for Bukayo Saka to have the next attempt saved to send Italy into celebration mode.
It’s unfortunate on the young lads, who no doubt have immense footballing quality and will have so for years to come. Southgate himself knows better than anyone the distress of missing a penalty on the big stage. You can count on him for mentoring for the boys now.
So that’s it. The dream is put on hold for another year for English fans all around the world.
Who stood out among the runners-up this tournament? As aforementioned, Luke Shaw was spectacular, as was the entire backline for that matter, with just the two goals conceded in the backline consisting predominantly of Maguire, John Stones and Kyle Walker.
Declan Rice and Kalvin Phillips, by no means global stars or household names, became a rock-solid partnership in the defensive midfield role. Rice was one of the standout performers in the final prior to his substitution.
Raheem Sterling reminded everyone of his class this tournament, scoring the opening three goals and picking up an assist as well. His endless running and work in the semi-final against Denmark shouldn’t be forgotten as well.
Jordan Pickford was exceptional this tournament. I was doubtful of him going in – I’ve always seen him as a bit clumsy and prone to an error for Everton – but he was immense all tournament long.
Captain Kane took a while to get off the mark but ended the tournament with four goals. He was largely anonymous in the group stage, even being substituted for Rashford in one game after his lack of impact. However, he had fantastic performances in the knockouts, coming in deeper to get more involved, much like he does at Tottenham.
His first half in the final evidenced much of this, but perhaps he didn’t step up in the later stages of the game, when England really needed someone to test the Italian shot-stopper. No doubt when Kane is in the side, he’ll score goals, and you just know he’ll be picking them up in Qatar next year.
The assist from Grealish to Kane against Germany perhaps shows the formula that brings the best out of Kane, with the creative spark of Grealish still causing the most debate among England fans. There’s no doubt he possesses unreal quality, but whether or not to have him as an impact sub or a striker still ruffles a few feathers.
England fans should remain optimistic going into Qatar. A semi-final in 2018 and a final in 2021 shows promise on paper, and the youth of this squad shows serious potential for the years to come. Grealish, Saka, Rashford, Jude Bellingham, Sancho – There’s some serious star power Southgate can bring the best out of in years to come.
What are your thoughts on the standard of the English side going into Qatar?