For England, it was always going to be about finding the moment, the one to blow apart a tight game, to cut through so much negative tournament history – particularly at the hands of Germany. And for long spells, as the tension rose to near unbearable levels at a raucous and emotional Wembley, the home crowd wondered whether it would come.
Gareth Southgate, who had reverted to a 3-4-3 system, seeking a secure platform, had called for a hero. And, with 15 minutes to go, he found one. Yet again, it was Raheem Sterling.
After his match-winning goals in the group stage against Croatia and the Czech Republic, he ignited a move that saw Harry Kane find the substitute, Jack Grealish, who played in Luke Shaw. Sterling kept on running and, when Shaw crossed, he was there to spark bedlam with the finishing touch.
It was always going to be about moments. Germany has wasted a couple but, with the game on the line, they had their big one. England’s defence was caught square, following a poor Sterling back pass and, when Kai Havertz released Thomas Müller, he was one-on-one with Jordan Pickford and had to score. He dragged his shot past the post.
England sensed only their second ever knockout phase victory at a European Championship – the first was against Spain on penalties in 1996 – and an end to a crushing sequence of Germany tournament dominance. Prior to this, they had won each of the previous four meetings in the knockout stages of major finals.
It fell to Harry Kane to make sure and, after his struggles in front of goal, it felt impossibly sweet for him and everybody with England in their hearts. Once again, the incision came up the left, Shaw finding Grealish and the cross made to measure for Kane, who converted the stooping header.
For Southgate, there was personal atonement for his infamous penalty miss here against Germany in the Euro 96 semi-final but moreover, there was the sense that England had located the ignition key. A heavily partisan atmosphere had pulsed throughout and, at the end of it all and with the draw to the final having opened up, it was impossible to ignore the sense of possibility.
It was an epic occasion and it had begun for England with a harrowing opening ten minutes, when Germany advertised their threat. Southgate’s team were penned in, the ball coming back time and again, with Germany able to run in on England’s back line, most notably when Leon Goretzka surged to the edge of the area where he was upended by Declan Rice, who was booked. When Havertz blasted the free-kick into the wall, it added up to a let-off for England.
There were errors on the ball from England in the early running, a collective nervousness and Germany looked smoother, their front three rotating easily, finding spaces between the lines. Havertz shimmered with menace while Müller was difficult to pin down.
England dug out a foot-hold, with Bukayo Saka providing a few notes of clarity on the right, a fearlessness on the ball, even if it was too frantic for much of the first half for Southgate’s liking. The worry from an England point of view related to how they would retain possession, how they could dictate the tempo and, more to the point, whether they could use it with any precision.
Sterling extended Manuel Neuer with a shot from distance on 16 minutes and there was the moment when Kieran Trippier crossed for Harry Maguire, after being played in by the energetic Kalvin Phillips, only for the centre-half to head high.
Kane fed off scraps – once again – although he almost found one in first-half stoppage time. Sterling burst into the area and, when the ball broke kindly for the captain, he looked the favourite to score. Mats Hummels, though, nicked the ball away from him.
Germany had their regrets before the interval, too; the biggest of them coming after Havertz released Timo Werner around the side of John Stones in the 32nd minute. The angle was tight but Werner still had plenty of the goal at which to aim. Pickford made a vital block.
England were always going to suffer; the home crowd knew it and they looked for something, anything, around which to rally – a Phillips tackle, a Sterling sprint, Maguire stepping out of defence with the ball. It seemed as if Southgate’s players were running on passion; they needed composure.
Havertz rose above the tumult. He worked Pickford straight after half-time with a vicious hit from the edge of the area and, every time that he moved forward, the alarm bells rang loudly for England.
Southgate had stayed true to himself with his lineup and there was a kind of bravery to his thought processes. The populist thing to have done would have been to inject greater fantasy and start, say, Grealish and/or Phil Foden, but he felt it would have been foolish.
Better to mirror Germany’s back three system, to prioritise security and set up a series of one-on-one duels. It was Southgate backing his players to be better than their opposite numbers. But as the second-half minutes ticked down, it was clear that he needed to twist. England needed greater impetus.
The crowd had begun to call for Grealish in the 55th minute and they would get their wish, the playmaker skipping on in a like-for-like swap for Saka and Sterling moving to the right. Southgate did not want to abandon his structure.
Then it happened. Southgate’s idea behind the system was to get Shaw high up on the left and how he made his incision count, with Sterling doing the rest. Kane’s goal fired one of the biggest sporting parties for some time.