In the stifling heat of a Roman summer, Gareth Southgate’s heroes were as cold as ice. Clinical. Ruthless. Calculated.
England are on the edge of greatness; their exhilarating win over Ukraine on Saturday sent a chilling message to the rest of Europe.
To witness this exceptional side execute a game plan so emphatically was a privilege. An epic night — unquestionably one of the most memorable in English football’s recent history.
England’s victory over Ukraine was the best performance of Gareth Southgate’s reign
We’ve had a few under Southgate now: ending the penalty shootout and tournament knockout hex in the World Cup last-16 against Colombia in 2018 was a night to live long in the memory.
The convincing 2-0 win over Sweden a few days later was one of the most complete performances from an England team we’d seen in years.
Then came the victory over Spain in Seville, the night Southgate believes Raheem Sterling came of age in an England shirt.
For pure emotion, last Tuesday’s win over Germany may never be beaten.
But here in the historic Stadio Olimpico, England delivered the most savage dismantling of an opposing team of Southgate’s reign to put themselves within touching distance of glory.
From someone who was present at all the aforementioned clashes, what transpired in Italy’s capital ranks towards the top.
The Three Lions totally dominated their opponents to book their place in the semi-finals
Perhaps not in terms of emotion and tension, but rather the way England took all the emotion and tension out of it.
This performance was smothered in efficiency — Ukraine were dead and buried inside four minutes as Harry Kane poked home the opener.
Yet it was the way England refused to let Ukraine off the hook that was most impressive. They caught sight of the jugular and went for it. That is why this night was so special. That is why this team are now on the cusp of immortality. Not necessarily just because they won the game, but how they did it.
The national team’s long association with failure means many of us are waiting for the bubble to burst.
And, of course, it would be just like England to falter against Denmark on Wednesday night. But you get the impression this team are different. This manager is different.
Not saddled with baggage from the past, they are plotting their own route, their own destiny.
The proof will be in the pudding, naturally. Lose to the Danes and questions about the team’s ability to take the final step will become all the rage.
But on the evidence of Saturday night here, they look to have everything in the locker to complete the job. Because, let’s face it, they’ve answered every question levelled at them so far.
Their route to the quarter-finals was downplayed due to the fact they’d played the entire tournament at Wembley prior to the win over Ukraine. How would they react without their home comforts, without the roar of 40,000 supporters cheering them on? The answer was emphatic.
Maybe they needed this game in Italy to prove something to themselves. Maybe they needed the experience of doing it all on their own, without the encouragement of a vociferous Wembley crowd, to truly believe.
England have ticked every box until now — on the evidence of the past seven days, they are primed to chalk off the final two.
Southgate certainly believes so, saying: ‘They have got the mentality to go on. Our group are ready to get to the next step, they are excited by that challenge.
‘They have a mixture of being able to make themselves relatable to the public, but they have got an edge, too. They don’t get through the last few weeks and the challenges that they have had, and the challenges they have got through in the last 12 months as a team, without having mental toughness as well.
Harry Kane started slowly but just like England he is finding top form at the right time
‘In tournaments some of the games unfold in really peculiar ways. We’ve seen that with some of the other matches.
‘But they will be prepared and they will be ready mentally and we have guys who have won trophies now and know what that takes.’
What’s more, everything seems to be clicking at the right time. Harry Kane, as he promised he would, is peaking. Having scored three in his last two, the nonsensical calls for Southgate to drop his captain look even more ridiculous than they did at the time.
Sterling is staking a claim to be player of the tournament, Luke Shaw is coming of age and Jordan Pickford is yet to concede a goal in the tournament. Even Jordan Henderson has scored.
Whatever could have gone right, has gone right. It would be just like reality to slap us all in the face at Wembley on Wednesday.
But there is something, just something, about this England team that finally has us believing.
England’s players play with a freedom that suggests they are not burdened by the past