England fans plan for semi-finals as they hail rare penalty shootout win

It was penalties, once again, but England are no longer guaranteed to lose their nerve when it matters and a flawless set of spot kicks mean they have progressed into the semi-finals of Euro 2024 after edging their way past Switzerland.

Many questions will continue to linger over Gareth Southgate’s team who began this match well but required a moment of magic from Bukayo Saka to stop them from being knocked out in normal time. But none of this was in the minds of the players or the Three Lions support as they joined together to belt out Freed From Desire after victory had finally been secured, 5-3 on penalties.

A midweek encounter in Dortmund with the winners of the tie between the Netherlands and Turkey now awaits and expectation will be rising of the prospects for this team. Pre-tournament favourites, England have played like anything but in the matches to this point, but they have also bucked the script of so many previous sides. They are not plucky losers, denied at the last by luck or their own limitations. They are talented players failing to gel together as a unit, but somehow finding a way to win.

For the supporters, meanwhile, for once outsung by a wall of wobbling Swiss red, there is now the following dilemma: stay for a few more days and drain another few hundred pounds from the bank account, or go home and bank the memories? For many, the choice will not be a hard one.

After all the predictions and possible permutations as to how England might approach this match, the team looked very familiar when it first took to the field in Dusseldorf. The only change to personnel was one enforced by suspension, with Ezri Konsa replacing Marc Guehi, while Bukayo Saka retained his customary place on the right wing despite predictions he would be switched to the left. The formation, meanwhile was fluid, and for a while this was no bad thing.

England had much the better of the first half and looked something like the team so many expected them to be. Saka was dangerous on the right hand side, Phil Foden and Jude Bellingham were influential in the middle. But yet, as with the matches elsewhere in the tournament, England did not create much in the way of goal-scoring opportunities.

The second half saw the Swiss make a sharp improvement and England fell back into a reactive way of playing, the mode that England fans cannot get behind. The Swiss support, meanwhile, were singing and dancing relentlessly. It is impossible to say precisely how much one group had influenced the other but there was no doubt that England were now second best and when the Swiss opened the scoring through Breel Embolo at the back post it came as no surprise.

England’s Bukayo Saka scores their first goal past Switzerland’s Yann Sommer. Photograph: Kai Pfaffenbach/Reuters

With 10 minutes remaining of the 90 it looked like England were heading out, but then came Saka again, cutting in from the right hand side and doing as he has done so many times for Arsenal; picking out the far corner of the goal with an exquisite left foot strike. The England crowd went wild, celebrating the equaliser, but also the manner of it. This was what they were out in Germany to see. For the first time a chant of “Don’t take me home” could be heard.

Extra time was a tense affair with Jordan Pickford called into action late on and substitute Ivan Toney calling for a penalty with the last kick of the game. But Toney got up and scored his penalty in the shootout, as did Saka, extinguishing those awful memories of his missed kick against Italy three years ago, but perhaps not those of the terrible abuse that followed.

Earlier in the day, fans of numerous nations mingled freely on the banks of the Rhine on Saturday afternoon, in an atmosphere that was the most at ease of all England’s fixtures to date. There were English knights in chain mail and Swiss with cheese on their heads, and an impromptu game of limbo being played much to the amusement of the children running around.

The subset of England support that are the loudiest and the lairiest seemed smaller in number than previous matches too. Identifiable by the presence of an inflatable RAF bomber bouncing on top of the crowd, they were gathered at Kay-und-Lore-Lorentz-Platz, trying to land a small football inside an open window above a Mexican restaurant.

It was all fun and games, and no disorder on the day. But there remained a sense of needle. While Swiss fans were loud and drunk, the extent of their baiting of other fans extended to signs comparing national foodstuffs (or in the case of one clever little pun: “Swissham is better than Bellingham”). England fans meanwhile, in small isolated incidents, could be seen giving abuse to Swiss and German fans alike. It’s not only the players who can make improvements, but at least there’s still the chance to try.

The Guardian

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