When Thomas Müller missed his one big shot, and Harry Kane netted his header five minutes later, England found itself in what Peter Drury called a "national embrace". Finally England can let go of its German trauma.
Thomas Müller gambolled clear of the England defence like a startled deer, and Wembley held its collective breath. A man who has scored so often for Bayern Munich, a player who has been extraordinarily consistent year upon year in the most unconventional way, only had England keeper Jordan Pickford to beat.
Müller took aim, and Müller missed.
Five minutes later, England’s hitherto-caged captain Harry Kane nodded in a goal that sparked what erudite TV commentator Peter Drury described as a "national embrace". It was 2-0, and it was over. England had finally beaten Germany in a knockout game in a major tournament, and they had done it at Wembley, where 25 years earlier Stefan Kuntz and company had burst England’s European Championship balloon in the cruellest way possible.
This time it all went Englands way
On that painful day in 1996, the big moments went against England. Darren Anderton struck a post in extra time, and then Paul Gascoigne couldn’t quite stretch far enough to poke home Alan Shearer’s driven cross. These are incidents that have been replayed on TV screens and in minds ever since, as England fans have had to pile up near-misses and outright failures.
This time at Wembley, the big moments went England’s way. The sometimes-erratic Pickford made crucial saves from Champions League winners Timo Werner and Kai Havertz, Declan Rice was shown a yellow card for bringing down Leon Goretzka when some harsher referees might have shown a red, and then Müller had a moment that I hope won’t tarnish his magnificent legacy.
There might be schadenfreude
As Joshua Kimmich cried in the arms of Mats Hummels, unable to contain the frustration and despair, many England fans doubtless enjoyed a moment of schadenfreude. That’s usually one of our players crying, with our dreams smashed on the Wembley turf like a dropped vase. That’s usually our post-match inquiry about what went wrong, what we can change, who needs to be kicked out and who needs to be brought in. That’s usually us watching the rest of the tournament from the side-lines, as someone else lifts the trophy.
Of course, that might still be England’s fate. For all the talk of a wide-open route to the final, the Three Lions must still beat a talented and unpredictable Ukraine team in Rome on Saturday, and a semi-final will bring a clash with either a resurgent Denmark or a Czech Republic side that dumped the Netherlands out of the tournament. There are no pushovers from here on in, and no gimmies.
It's a big triumph for Southgate
But while we can dream of Harry Kane lifting that famous trophy at Wembley on July 11, England manager Gareth Southgate will not allow his players to think that far ahead. The victory over Germany was a huge personal triumph for the coach, even though he would never let it be about him. After Tuesday’s 2-0 win, he spoke of the lingering pain of his penalty shoot-out failure against Germany in 1996, but the new sliver of history he carved out for himself and his country owed much to his willingness to ignore the background noise.
Pundits, armchair or otherwise, lined up to tell him his team selection and choice of formation was wrong. There was a sea of phone-ins and social media posts to drown in before the game had even begun. Playing a back three was too negative, they said. Why wasn’t the effervescent Jack Grealish in the starting XI? Where were Phil Foden and Mason Mount? Why not concentrate on enhancing England’s strengths rather than negating Germany’s?
Southgate turned down the volume of that chatter to zero, had the courage of his convictions and he was proved right. The use of wing-backs stopped the destroyers of Portugal - Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich - from truly influencing the game, and England’s left-sided wing-back Luke Shaw was involved in both goals after an uncertain start. Grealish proved to be the perfect impact sub, as he could dazzle against opponents with tired legs and tired minds.
Sterling stings like a wasp
Raheem Sterling, born in Jamaica but raised within sight of the Wembley arch, was once again England’s hero. Although he has often been mistreated by parts of the English media and sections of the England fanbase, Sterling has carried himself with dignity, and there is something truly delightful about seeing him at the forefront of moments that should be remembered for generations. Like a human wasp stinging at will, Sterling’s desire to jink and dart and surge against an uncertain German defence made him a constant threat, and it was no surprise that he opened the scoring.
For Germany, this is a rare setback that heralds the end of Jogi Löw’s improbably long tenure as coach, and the start of Hansi Flick’s spell as the Bundestrainer. Given Flick’s success with the likes of Manuel Neuer, Joshua Kimmich, Leon Goretzka and Serge Gnabry at Bayern, and his experience as a World Cup-winning assistant coach with Germany in 2014, this defeat at Wembley could merely be the prelude to much brighter days.
That’s another story for another time, but now it’s England who have the limelight after a tournament clash with Germany. Southgate admitted after this historic Wembley clash that if the team and formation he had selected had failed, he’d "be dead". His dreams and England’s dreams are still very much alive.