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Super-sub Watkins strikes late to send England into Euro 2024 final

Whoever doubted Gareth Southgate's tactical genius?

With 10 minutes remaining and England in need of inspiration as this thrilling semi-final appeared to be heading towards extra-time and penalties, Southgate made the boldest of calls, taking off a rejuvenated Phil Foden and Harry Kane, who had earlier increased his record as England's greatest goalscorer. On went Cole Palmer and Ollie Watkins, and nine minutes later the pair combined as the Villa man scored a goal that puts England into the final against Spain in Berlin on Sunday, their second successive final in this competition.

And it is unlikely to be easy going for Spain, after England finally showed why they were pre-tournament favourites with their best display for some time. It was not quite up there with the 4-1 demolition of the Dutch in this same competition 28 years ago but this was the England many had expected to see, taking control for large parts of the game with controlled, attacking football, solid defending, and a never-say-die spirit.

They wrested control from the Dutch in a dominant first half display once Kane equalised from the penalty spot after Xavi Simons had given the Netherlands an early lead.

And even though Ronald Koeman went to Wout Weghorst at half-time again to give his side a chance, England kept it tight and scored when it mattered most — right at the death.

Both managers made just one change each to their starting line-ups, with England's Marc Guehi returning from suspension to replace Ezri Konsa in England's back three, while Ronald Koeman replaced Steven Bergwijn with Donyell Malan, perhaps thinking that playing on his home turf would give Borussia Dortmund forward an advantage.

It was almost like a home game for the Dutch, whose fans had been streaming steadily across the border with north-west Germany over the past few days. Orange outnumbered red and white by roughly two to one in the stadium, the noise levels from both sets of fans were dialled up before kick-off and then went up a notch when Xavi Simons put the Netherlands ahead after six minutes. England could have defended better. Guehi's headed clearance put Declan Rice under pressure, but the big Arsenal midfielder was still muscled off the ball to easily by the diminutive Simons, who ran towards the penalty area. Instead of closing him down, Kyle Walker hesitated and turned his back, giving the RB Leipzig man time and space to unleash a shot from 20 yards that flew past Jordan Pickford.

It was the perfect start for Koeman's side, a setback for Southgate. But this England team seem to need adversity to get them going, and they quickly took control of the game. Kane, looking much more like Europe's leading centre-forward, was moving better than in previous games and prepared to shoot on site. One long shot forced a full-length save from Bart Verbruggen and when he hit a volley just over the bar soon afterwards, Denzil Dumfries caught the striker's foot with his studs up. Felix Zwayer ignored Kane's complaints until prompted by his VAR to view the pitchside monitor, and the German referee returned with a penalty award. Verbruggen gussed right and dived to his right, but Kane struck the perfect penalty, hard and low inside the post.

Now level England started to play like the sum of their talented parts at last. Kobbie Mainoo was everywhere, linking attacks and mopping up at the back, Bukayo Saka was a threat whenever he got the ball, Jude Bellingham showed flashes of brilliance, but most importantly, Phil Foden was on fire.

With Saka deployed as a wing-back again, Foden was able to do what he does so well for Manchester City, coming in off the right or from central midfield, taking the ball on the half-turn and going past opponents, and firing in dangerous shots. One curler was well saved by Verbruggen, another clipped the outside of the far post.

The Dutch also hit the woodwork in an enthralling first-half, Dumfries planting a header on top of the crossbar from a corner, but it was a rare foray forward from them. England had the vast majority of possession and chances, and Dumfries had to clear a Foden shot off his goal-line after the England man wriggled through a thicket of legs.

Koeman had to replace the injured Memphis Depay before half-time, and then sent on his Plan B, in the shape of Wout Weghorst at the break.

The Dutch went more direct and started to create chances. Pickford made his first real save when Virgil Van Dijk clipped a half-volley towards goal from Joey Veerman's deep free-kick, and Dumfries headed over the resulting corner.

It started to get feisty. Weghorst caught John Stones with an arm to the face, Bellingham was booked for a rash tackle. Saka got the ball in the Dutch net in the 79th minute, but Walker had run offside before crossing. The Netherlands were taking the sort of control England had Southgate then made two bold calls, replacing Kane with Ollie Watkins and sending on Cole Palmer for Foden.

The Chelsea man sent one shot over the bar, shortly after Watkins failed to connect with a cutback from Luke Shaw.

But the Villa man made no mistake with two minutes of regular time remaining. Palmer played a clever ball into his feet, and Watkins does what has been doing all season – held off his marker, Stefan de Vrij, turned and steered a perfect shot past Verbruggen into the far corner of goal.

English celebrations, on and off the pitch, could start in earnest when the final whistle went moments later. “Please don't take me home,” sang England supporters.

Southgate and his men obliged.

NETHERLANDS: 4-3-3 Verbruggen 6; Dumfries 6, De Vrij6, van Dijk 6, Aké 6; Schouten 6, Simons 7, Reijnders 7; Malen 6 (Wegrhorst 46), Depay 6 (Veerman 35) Gakpo 6.

ENGLAND: 3-4-2-1 Pickford 7; Walker 6, Stones 7, Guehi 7; Saka 7 (Konsa 89), Rice 7, Mainoo 8 (Gallagher 89), Trippier 6 (Shaw 46); Foden 7 (Palmer 80), Bellingham 7; Kane 7 (Watkins 80).

Referee: Felix Zwayer (Germany) 8/10.

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