England put aside caution and fear to deliver a performance full of confidence bordering on swagger as they swept aside Ukraine 4-0 on Saturday to reach the Euro 2020 semi-finals, looking genuine title contenders in the process.
Wednesday’s opponents Denmark may offer a sterner test at Wembley than Ukraine provided at the Stadio Olimpico, and an eventual final against Spain or Italy is a different matter altogether, but if there were any doubts about England’s credentials they were answered in Rome.
Harry Kane scored twice – putting to bed the doubts raised by his sluggish form in the group stage – but from back to front England played with poise and confidence.
The centre-halves, John Stones and Harry Maguire, took care of their defensive duties but also looked composed and elegant on the ball.
Left-back Luke Shaw was outstanding, making his bursts down the flank and providing the pinpoint crosses for headed goals from Maguire and Kane.
Raheem Sterling on the left set up Kane for England’s fourth minute opener and was constantly asking questions of the Ukraine defence with his dribbling and cuts in from the flank.
On the opposite wing, making his first start of the tournament, Jadon Sancho, with his deft touch, speed and smart movement, showed why Manchester United spent over 70 million pounds ($96.75 million) to sign him from Borussia Dortmund.
With a three-goal lead established by the 50th minute, manager Gareth Southgate was able to take off players facing a possible suspension from another yellow card and also to show the unmatched range of options available to him.
Jordan Henderson, whose involvement has been restricted as he returned from injury, came on and promptly scored his first international goal in his 62nd appearance.
Marcus Rashford and Dominic Calvert-Lewin came on up front and 18-year-old Jude Bellingham also got some minutes in midfield.
All that and the talent of Jack Grealish and Phil Foden was left on the bench, a real indication of the strength in depth of Southgate’s squad.
England’s football in the group stage and in the 2-0 win against Germany in the round of 16, had been organised and functional but once Maguire made it 2-0 right after the break the real quality of this team began to show.Slideshow ( 4 images )
There were moments when it was almost Spanish style tiki-taka football with England keeping possession and creating passing triangles around midfield.
Sterling’s cheeky pass with his heel to set up Shaw for his cross for Kane’s second and England’s third was the sign of a player brimming with belief.
Ukraine were no match for England but the Three Lions have laboured against that level of team in the past and have frozen at the business end of the big tournaments — this time they look to be peaking at just the right moment.
Added to all the positive football and sharpness in attack, England kept their record of not conceding a goal in the tournament.
It was a tough exit for a Ukraine side that have fought so admirably to reach the last eight, but it sets up what should be a thrilling week of football in London.
Italy and Spain clash on Tuesday at Wembley before the home favourites, looking for their first final since 1966, play the following day against Denmark at the same stadium.
After the World Cup last-four loss to Croatia in 2018, this was the second straight major tournament semi-final for Southgate’s side and now the pressure is on to go all the way.
“This group are not settling for a semi-final,” said Maguire.
In Rome, they looked like title contenders. Now they have to prove their worth back on home soil.