England 2 — Denmark 1 (after extra time)

England’s men’s team deservedly reached their first football final in 55 years after showing a tranquillity and game intelligence against Denmark last night that they hadn’t been able to muster three years ago at the same stage of the World Cup in Russia.

As so often before Euro 2020, it was Raheem Sterling — who grew up round the corner from the stadium and has called Wembley his “back garden” — who cracked open an obdurate opposition defence. But on Sunday England will face their biggest threat yet: probably Europe’s best team, Italy.

Denmark produced only 15 top-class minutes here, midway through the first half of the semi-final, but it was enough to rock England. Aggressive pressing gave England’s defenders the most torrid time they have had all tournament. Nerves struck, and keeper Jordan Pickford’s distribution — excellent in the previous matches, and a reason why he is in this team — went to pieces.

In this angst-ridden spell, he repeatedly gave the ball to Danes in good positions. His defenders reverted to their ancestral reflex of punting long, extending the field and allowing gaps to appear in midfield.

Then, on the half-hour, Luke Shaw gave away a free-kick near the penalty area, and Denmark’s young revelation Mikkel Damsgaard curled a beauty high into Pickford’s net. It was the first goal from a direct free-kick by any team this tournament, and the first goal England had conceded in 11 hours 31 minutes on the pitch, a clean sheet stretching back to March.

England’s manager Gareth Southgate said he had warned the team this match wouldn’t be as straightforward as the 4-0 cakewalk against Ukraine in the quarter-final: “We said to the players that we would have to show some resilience, that they would have to recover from some setbacks, and we did that.”

Going behind was an unfamiliar and potentially nerve-racking experience for his team. But under stress, England had the maturity to self-correct. John Stones and Southgate gestured for Pickford to calm down, and he responded, up to a point. The defenders made hand signals that seemed to call for a return to the compact ground-based game that had served England so well until now.

Within a few minutes a low cross from Harry Kane put Sterling in front of Denmark’s keeper, Kasper Schmeichel, who saved. But a minute later England’s equaliser came: Kane found Bukayo Saka, who crossed low. Denmark’s sliding captain Simon Kjaer, trying to forestall the waiting Sterling, scored an own goal.

In previous games against central-defensive trios, a lone Kane had been blotted out. Here he repeatedly dropped into midfield, leaving Denmark’s central defenders with nobody to mark, and weaved intelligent through-balls. It was another example of the tactical variations that England can plan and then execute.

Denmark’s big central defenders were set up to handle Kane; rapid little Sterling running into the vacant centre-forward’s position terrified them. If England beat Italy, Sterling will probably be player of the tournament. His dribbles are the most unpredictable element of England’s attacks. He is hard to read because he can beat defenders equally easily on either side. His shortness is an advantage, because he takes more steps than the bigger man facing him, allowing him to change direction faster. With experience he has learned to make better choices, and to steady himself before shooting or passing.

Denmark didn’t last. They have travelled more than England — their quarter-final against the Czech Republic was in Baku — and their style requires higher intensity than England’s typically compact formation. In the second half, Danes were dropping to the floor as if we were in the closing scenes of a Western. Their coach, Kasper Hjulmand, was forced to make five substitutions before full time, sapping his side’s quality and structure.

Once the game went to extra time, England were always likely to win. It must have been like this before the added 30 minutes in the 1966 World Cup final, when Sir Alf Ramsey’s England had outlasted their West German opponents. George Cohen, England’s right-back that afternoon, recalled: “When Alf came out at full-time, he said, ‘Look at the Germans, they’re finished.’ And they were all lying on the floor. Alf made us stand up to show them how fit we were.”

This time around, 13 minutes into extra time, Sterling made a winding run into Denmark’s penalty area and may have been lightly fouled by an exhausted Joakim Maehle. The video-assisted referee confirmed the penalty. Schmeichel stopped Kane’s weak side-footer but England’s captain put the rebound in the net for his fourth goal in three games.

Denmark barely even tried to equalise. For nearly three minutes towards the end of extra time, England played a round of piggy-in-the-middle, passing all over the field, defending on the ball as if they were Spain. Denmark were down to 10 men at this point after Mathias Jensen was injured in extra time with all their substitutions used up. Some Danes watched with their hands on their thighs, willing it all to be over. In fact, they looked like England teams of old did at this phase of decisive games, finished, unable to hang on to the ball.

England had lost six of their seven previous matches that went to extra time in major tournaments, according to the data provider Opta. But on Wednesday night, in the final minutes, England’s supporters were almost relaxed, belting out their tournament favourites, from Three Lions to Sweet Caroline. Most hadn’t been alive to see England reach a final before. In the celebrations afterwards, Harry Maguire, who had been outstanding, still had the strength to carry Declan Rice on his back round the pitch in celebration.

This was another disciplined English team performance, but Southgate’s biggest worry now may be Pickford. The keeper never regained his usual composure in throwing and passing the ball to his defenders, and punted long all match. To do that against Italy would condemn England to their old selves as ball-chasers. Italy’s central duo of Jorginho and Marco Verratti are already likely to win midfield, setting England up for a game nearer their own goal than Southgate would like. No doubt England’s team of psychologists will get their hands on Pickford in the run-up to the final. “It’s all about the next one,” said Kane.