Cruel, agonising and magnificent

Ken Jones sees a thrilling Wembley contest to rank among the greats
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The Independent Online
England and Germany have met each other in so many momentous championship matches it hardly seemed possible that last night's semi-final at Wembley could develop into one of the most thrilling encounters between them.

The swirling excitement of normal time; the dramas in extension; chances made and missed by both teams; final defeat for England in a penalty shoot- out that brought back the despair they felt as a place in the 1990 World Cup final disappeared in similar, agonising fashion.

Poor Gareth Southgate. The sixth of England's penalty takers, he sent a shot within the grasp of Germany's excellent goalkeeper, Andreas Kopke, and when Andreas Moller fired unerringly past David Seaman it was all over. Cruelly, football was no longer coming home; it was going away.

In all but a corner of the old stadium that held a small but vociferous contingent of German supporters, there was disbelief as Berti Vogts' squad streamed towards the triumphant Moller. Hardly an English flag was to be seen. To lose in this way is about as cruel as sport gets, and England will for a long time rue the shot that Darren Anderton sent against an upright in extra time and the two chances that eluded Paul Gascoigne's thrusting foot.

But Germany, too, had their opportunities and only the utmost admiration can be held out for them. Depleted by injuries - without Jurgen Klinsmann and with only one recognised attackers, Stefan Kuntz, fit - they staged a magnificent rearguard action.

An impression gained during the latter stages of Euro 96 was that the team playing with the sort of passion that enabled England to compensate for technical shortcomings could be victorious in the long run.

Even allowing for Germany's discipline and pride - the inner strength they have derived from a remarkable record of appearing in the final of 10 major championships - the suspicion held by some on the periphery of the team was that they might wilt in the atmosphere generated by England's supporters, who brought a flood of red and white flags to north London.

Whatever existed in the minds of German players it was uncharacteristically slack marking that cost them a goal in the third minute. As Paul Ince has no reputation for being on target when shooting from just outside the penalty area, there seemed no great danger when a headed clearance dropped into his path. The rasping shot would have found the roof of Germany's net had their acrobatic goalkeeper not punched the ball for a corner.

Considering how well Germany have defended throughout the championship, especially when the ball has been aimed high into their goalmouth, they should have dealt adequately with Gascoigne's inswinger. However, Tony Adams' flick deceived them, enabling Alan Shearer to head his fifth goal of the tournament.

Given the injuries to their forwards Germany were never going to mount regular attacks. They concentrated their constructive forces in midfield and relied upon Moller to lead sorties from deep positions. That the England defenders had only Kuntz to contend with might have caused the lapse of concentration which led to the 15th-minute equaliser. Platt's careless pass put Thomas Helmer in possession, and his low, driven cross caught out Stuart Pearce as Kuntz swept in with a soft finish.

Enough thundering challenges went unpunished by the issue of a yellow card to suggest that the Hungarian referee, Sandor Puhl, had been instructed to handle the match sensibly and encouraged the more aggressive England players. If made anxious by Germany's clever counter-attacks England were usually in charge and would surely have progressed to the final had Dieter Eilts not fully earned recognition as man of the match with some magnificent clearances and interceptions.

It was not to be for England and here was the best game of the tournament so far, one that will be embedded in the football lore of both countries.