England expects. After crushing Ukraine 4-0 in virtually unprecedented fashion for a side wearing those Three Lions in knockout football, there will be few among the 60,000 crowd prepared for anything other than Football Coming Home. Pretty much everything that could have gone right for England in this tournament so far has. Granted, a 0-0 draw with Scotland was never part of the plan but eight goals without reply, no suspensions, precious few injury scares, a team and management singing from the same hymn sheet, Harry Kane finding form at the right time — things could hardly be rosier.
But England are not the only ones riding an emotional wave as they look to finally make a first major final for 55 years. Denmark’s storyline is scarcely less remarkable than the one which saw them win the 1992 title having not even qualified — legend having it that the Danes had to round their squad up from beaches when Yugoslavia pulled out amid war in the Balkans.
This time their campaign was only 41 minutes old when star player Christian Eriksen collapsed as the world watched in shock. Given that game ended in a 1-0 defeat to Finland and the next saw them lose 2-1 to Belgium, there would have been no disgrace had Denmark never left Copenhagen, where their group matches were staged.
There can be no doubt the crest of a wave that home advantage allowed Denmark to ride helped as they romped past Russia 4-1 and — in a home-from-home fixture in Amsterdam — Wales 4-0.
But the Danes showed a different side to their game in Baku, with quarantine restrictions meaning the 1,000 fans who saw the match against the Czech Republic would not be allowed to visit London.
It was far more of an away side’s performance, with Denmark ruthless on the break, Thomas Delaney and Kasper Dolberg giving them a two-goal lead before composing themselves after Patrick Schick pulled one back.
Throw in the fact the Danes were the last visiting side to triumph at Wembley — 1-0 in a Nations League tie last autumn when Harry Maguire was sent off — and nobody should take them lightly.
England manager Gareth Southgate is unlikely to reveal his attacking hand too early, so coach Kasper Hjulmand may not know whether to prepare for Jack Grealish or Mason Mount or Jadon Sancho or Bukayo Saka. But no team has played with more freedom during this tournament than the Danes and that in itself makes the semi-final a very different challenge for England.
Raheem Sterling v Kasper Dolberg
Neither man was necessarily expected to be a leading figure in this competition before it started but both go into the semi-finals as players in form and with three goals apiece.
While England manager Gareth Southgate has rung the changes in the attacking positions, his faith in Sterling has been unwavering, and with good cause, even though he fell out of favour with Manchester City boss Pep Guardiola towards the end of last season.
Sterling grabbed England’s first three goals of the tournament and he turned provider with a sublime ball for Harry Kane’s all-important fourth-minute opener against Ukraine. With 15 goals in his last 21 international games, the 26-year-old has come of age.
It has been a very different tournament for 23-year-old Dolberg who did not even come off the bench for the Danes’ two defeats.
But after a thigh problem forced Yussuf Poulsen out of the first knockout stage, Dolberg has shone; a brace in the 4-0 crushing of Wales followed by a superb volley which ultimately proved the difference in the 2-1 win over the Czechs. Dolberg may only just be winning Hjulmand’s faith but he has nine Denmark goals since the start of 2019, a number only bettered by Eriksen’s 11.
Jordan Pickford v Kasper Schmeichel
If Denmark are to make history and repeat their 1992 heroics one comparison will be impossible to avoid — a huge blond presence between the sticks.
Schmeichel’s dad Peter was well on his way to gaining a reputation as the best goalkeeper in the world when he made the pivotal save from Marco van Basten in Denmark’s semi-final victory against the Netherlands 29 years ago.
Kasper, of course, has already featured in his own miracle as a member of Leicester’s 2016 Premier League title triumph and also performed heroics in this season’s FA Cup final victory over Chelsea.
England’s goalkeeping blond, meanwhile, has come in for all manner of criticism since his heroics at the 2018 World Cup which included that shoot-out success over Colombia.
And yet Pickford has again shown the right temperament for the biggest stage. He has not been called upon for long spells but this just makes his stops from Scotland’s Stephen O’Donnell, Germany’s Timo Werner and Kai Havertz plus Ukraine’s Roman Yaremchuk all the more laudable.
The longer he can extend his run of clean sheets for his country — five in this tournament and six overall — the more England supporters will start to believe.
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