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England’s next challenge: turn tense Wembley relationship into love match | Euro 2020

“You play at Wembley. These are your Euros.” It is two weeks since Jürgen Klinsmann spoke these words, sounding, as ever, like a kindly, sad Californian robot replicant boy and in the process pulling the rug from a comfortingly angst-ridden discussion around the BBC punditry table about England’s chances at Euro 2020.

At the time England had yet to qualify from Group D. They had yet to face down whichever Group of Death escapee would land in their lap. There were personnel uncertainties, formation muddles and the prospect of at least one trip away from the lighted arch before Wembley would begin to feel like a fortress, a friend and a home straight.

Plus, there was tension around the basic idea of home. The opening game against Croatia had been an uplifting moment. But there was still a vague fear Wembley could become a drain should things start to turn. The booing before kick-off had introduced a note of dislocation. Nobody really knew how the great return would work out, how people were going to feel out there in all that light.

Let’s face it, Wembley has always carried its own kind of voodoo, torn at times between the anti-energy of those midweek friendlies when the national stadium caries all the fierce, scalding passion of a night at the Ideal Home Exhibition and the quiet creep of hostility that was present during the tedious 0-0 against Scotland.

In the event Jürgen was right. England are back at Wembley, as is the entire denouement to this unexpectedly vibrant European Championship. Should Gareth Southgate’s team edge past Denmark on Wednesday they will have run through this tournament playing six out of seven games at that austere concrete bowl off the North Circular and staged a home Euros by stealth.

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But where Klinsmann saw only comforts, Wembley offers a note of extreme jeopardy. So much of England football is about managing the ambient pressure, from the profile of the players, the burden of the talent pool, to that confusion of pageantry, solipsism, hope, culture-shock and half-grasped history.

The Wembley crowd was a brilliantly energising presence against Germany and notably patient during the agonies around the hour mark. But right now there is a degree of vertigo. Lose this one, Denmark at home, and all that progress, every moment of interim triumph can be made to look like a false trail, buildup to an ever-greater deflation.

For those with an ingrained anti-Gareth bent, defeat at Wembley would resurrect – and resurrect with extreme prejudice – the grievances about talent squandered, the refusal to Play All the Players, the talk of bottle jobs. “The noise at Wembley will be deafening,” Teddy Sheringham said this week. But what kind of noise?

That home arch looms quietly over all this. England and Wembley has not always been a straightforward love story. It is 98 years since the opening of the original Empire Stadium site, carved out of farmland at the end of the Metropolitan line. In that time Wembley has been a living museum of English football’s grand, glorious, oddly tortured relationship with itself: from gleaming trophy-tosses to qualifications funked, collapses, revivals, toilet resignations, confused men with golfing umbrellas shouting at the rain.

Steve McClaren shelters from the Wembley rain during England’s defeat to Croatia in 2007.
Steve McClaren shelters from the Wembley rain during England’s defeat to Croatia in 2007. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

In recent years there has been something else too, the search for some new marks, new scars, new notes of glory within the rather soulless rebuild. This is the burden of coming home, two steps from the summit.

For all that, Wembley has been a happy place for this England team. The current run stands at one defeat, one draw and 14 victories since September 2018, although in an impressive Euro 2020 plot twist that defeat was against Denmark last October.

That game feels like a step along the road rather than a derailing. It was a bruising night. England played for 55 minutes with 10 men after two yellow cards for a spooked looking Harry Maguire. The players were angry at the end. The back three looked uneasy. But England managed to rack up 15 shots and had the satisfaction, and indeed the current motivation, of seeing the opposition elated at the end.

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Perhaps the absence of a crowd helped, not to mention the sense of much greater issues in train in the wider world. But elements that malfunctioned in that defeat have been refined rather than junked. England have worked hard to tighten that same defensive system. The two-man midfield, an early outing for the Rice-Phillips pivot, has been allowed to grow into a coherent partnership.

The fluid backline, the rotating wing-backs, Harry Kane plus speed in attack: the current England team is essentially Denmark Defeat 2.0. But a more gristly, more coherent, more structured version. Wembley will present a fascinating test of the progress made from that point to this.

Denmark have also evolved, the main personnel shift enforced by the trauma of Parken, with Christian Eriksen replaced by the prodigiously talented Mikkel Damsgaard. For the past 10 days they have been an embodiment of the best of these Euros, a likable, stirring, fearlessly committed team with the will and the tactical wit to press in packs all over the pitch.

Pierre-Emile Højbjerg will not be cowed by the physical intensity of England’s central midfield and Denmark have scored 10 goals in their past three games, an attacking potency that has been a recurrent theme under Kasper Hjulmand.

Southgate will be interested in how those goals have been scored, mainly from crosses. The Danes played a back four against Wales and a back three against the Czech Republic. The constant has been the wonderful form of their wide players, in particular Joakim Mæhle on the left. There will be a temptation to close down that strength, to stock the full-back areas, perhaps even to match Denmark’s shape if they look like opting for a back three.

There are, as always, weaknesses: a lack of speed in central defence, a sense that England’s inside forwards will find space off the back of the Denmark midfield. Then again, this group of Danish players has been so resourceful and uplifting, a team playing with a light around it, that any kind of outcome is possible.

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Denmark have also enjoyed hosting benefits to this point, playing all three group games in Copenhagen. Since then they have been to Amsterdam, Baku and now London, a 7,000-mile trip.

Wembley will hold no terrors. It is a stadium with a special place in their football history too. We remember the glory of 1983 and a 1-0 defeat of England that provided the launch point for a dazzling decade.

Wembley can be a strange place, a vast grey bowl fretted at various times with grief, sorrow, joy, even a lack of interest. It will be wild on Wednesday, but with jeopardy, too, for England, who haven’t made it home just yet.

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