Denmark.

It’s surely more difficult for us than the players. They sleep, eat, ‘rest up’ then play. We, meanwhile are scurrying from bank (to sort post-separation dollars stuff), to garden (token hedge-trim), to the kitchen (to sort something crappy but Do-able Before The Game). It’s hell, right? Whilst Luke Shaw’s been absent-mindedly picking his nose and wiggling his toes in them dodgy red slippers, we’ve been ratcheting-up the wiredness factor. We’re exhausted from running down the clock… which hasn’t *actually* started.

Six-thirtyish and too late for a kip. Wine o’clock, possibly.

Denmark were ver-ry good whenever-it-was and they have a Reason To Believe. Maybe two: Eriksen and that whole ‘Small Nation’ thing. Why wouldn’t they be raging, magnificently and with quiet, comradely expectation at the prospect of delivering yet another axe to the unsuspecting back? England the footie team may not be complacent but the universe around sure is. Schmeichel’s icy put-down is merely one sign that their opponents – The Visitors – are rooted and ready and implacably determined. Denmark aren’t thinking of springing a surprise. They’re looking to outplay the home side – make a statement of togetherness and defiance and power.

This is one way it could go.

Another is that the England gaffer excels himself, by throwing off the Quiet Man Cape and donning the metaphorical chainmail. He roars; he sprays; he waves his spiky-mace-effort. His players are transported, inspired. They race and carve and consume, unrelentingly. They rout. The full-backs are winged maniacs and Our ‘Arry is a savage-beaked, swooping Griffin. We see myth play out, not match. We see Sterling galloping and Maguire gallumping. It’s like some epic, nation-defining tapestry. The lad from Liverpool scores again, for chrissakes.

Pause for that drink – my first, I promise.

The first rule of Big Match Club is don’t watch hours of pre-game punditry. (I’m still on Wimbledon). You know the ex-England posse will be drifting in and out of Delusionville: urging positivity and expression and directness, with – yaknow – straight faces. ‘Just hoping the lads will play with freedom’.

(Methinks Southgate worked out some time ago – dispiritingly, as I have said before – that you don’t need to play football to win tournaments: you need to manage games. He may be right but this doesn’t stop me dreaming – to coin a phrase – that Ingerland might break ranks with that entirely rational but mildly suffocating philosophy and go wild inna free-range stylee. Surge forward and look to outscore opponents who – whilst being worthy and competent-plus – have fewer talents to call upon).

I confess to being an outlier but I really do almost dread this more than defeat. Pragmatism and patience? COME ON!! Give something sustaining and enjoyable to the tournament, England. You owe us one – or five, or six. You’re in your house. Bring it down in a hail of voices, a cacophony of irresistible energy. Holding and waiting and ‘seeing out’ is such an under-achievement. 7.33.

Not sure about Wrighty’s glasses.

England have gone 4-2-3-1, with Saka back to have a gambol. Might have preferred 5-3-2 with genuinely flying wing-backs but Saka and Sterling might, of course surge into those spaces. Would love to see the latter stay involved and deliver a masterclass. Denmark are expected to be 3-4-3 but imagine wide players will swiftly drop in to make that a defensive 5. Am really looking forward to seeing if they can play nerveless, expansive (or at least controlled) football. Hunch is that we might see England play a lot of that slowly-slowly stuff that feels like a kind of capitulation. Hope I’m wrong.

7.53. Just get past the anthems then it’s sound up, yes?

Are people seriously booing the Danish anthem? What the f*ck are we, exactly?

Matterface. A concern?

Pleased Mount’s in there. He likes to run straight. Waiting on a killer one-two involving the wee man, or a threaded ball that breaks the line. Wonderful to see so much of that from both Spain and Italy last night – pinged, ‘vertical’ passes.

First rash one of the night; “We can beat the Danes, there’s no doubt about that.” Dixon. England racing in to press, early doors. Dead right, in this cauldron. But whilst England are bursting, Denmark execute a few slick passes – importantly, you feel. Great ball in, from Kane almost puts Sterling in on goal. High tempo, from England, encouragingly.

Walker uses his body well: then, with Stones and Maguire utterly absent, shepherds the ball back to safety. (Worrying moment, in fact: Walker’s pace and strength may have just saved his colleagues’ blushes). Mount is running but should do better when entering the box, on the right. Over-runs but draws the corner. Poor delivery from the Chelsea man – doesn’t beat the first man.

Sterling is skipping inside and should blast: scuffs it – decent chance. Twelve minutes and England dominant. Significantly, it’s bright, it’s energetic. Shaw looking confident and looking to pick passes. But then two errors and two half-chances… and the concern that despite conceding nothing, England do offer chances. Crowd sounds great; proverbial extra man for England – particularly if they keep the revs high. Sixteen minutes. Nil-nil.

Sterling is fouled – pushed, in the back – but falls down like something out of Punch & Judy. ‘Draws the foul’, according to the commentator. One or two England errors in central midfield, deepish, or deeper still. Slight concern? Twenty-two minutes. We have a breather.

For the first time, Denmark enjoy a little ease, in possession. They straighten, visibly. Saka maybe needs a kick.

A further half-chance for the visitors. As Germany did, they are asking questions. Game has evened up. Saka makes a nuisance of himself and gets a foul – without shaking off that sense that he’s not yet in the game – or on his. Dolberg shamelessly overacts after a minor cuff to the face. Mount was a tad clumsy but it was hardly an assault. Embarrassing – but rife, yes? Denmark appear to be dragging the England back four central, presumably to expose wide areas as a result?

Half an hour and *that foul* proves costly. Could be Pickford doesn’t cover himself in glory but a beautifully whipped side-foot strike from Damsgaard finds the net -stunningly – from best part of thirty yards. Fabulous hit but a) it was a decent distance out and b) it did not find the top corner. So arguable whether the England keeper has got that right. But to reiterate, lovely connection – and not completely out of the blue.

There is danger here, because the game is already quite open; or more particularly, the England defence (again despite that miserly record) looks porous – disparate, even. More goals, either on the break or via phases of play, feel possible. The threat is all from Denmark, suddenly.

Oof. Sharp move gets Sterling free but Schmeichel saves. A minute later and Kane finds an angle and Saka is racing and cutting back. Yet again it’s Sterling who can finish. (In truth he doesn’t need to: Kjaer, the retreating defender can only help it in). 1-1, against the very recent run of play, but England will take that. They needed it. Quality not as good as last night but excitement right up there. Crowd re-find their voice.

Kane dropping deep to get hold of the ball. Have no issue with that. Fine passer and happy to see him in the game. As we get to half time it’s been full-blooded, racy and even. 1-1 it is – and that’s a fair reflection. Mute button.

Looking at highlights, Sterling smashing straight into Schmeichel’s mid-riff was a real miss, but no argument with the general notion that Denmark have been at least as dangerous as the home side. Those pre-tournament concerns about the durability of England’s defence are *in play* here, to the extent that it feels likely that Denmark will score again. Is it fair to suggest that whoever wins this will start the final as underdogs? Less true it that team is England (because of the venue) but this is a notch down from Italy-Spain.

We’re back. Pickford – who has generally thwacked rather mindlessly long – thwacks mindlessly long: twenty five yards ahead of the England attack. Poor. Is he having one of those days? Lots of extravagant bawling going on. Meanwhile Maguire is booked for raising an arm into the headed challenge. Very questionable call. Time stands still for the bonce protocols. Lots of space in the midfield. Dolberg benefits but Pickford saves, with a strong wrist. But offside, in any case.

Denmark on top. The England keeper does one of those (ver ver contemporary) ridicu-punches, when he might surely have caught the cross. Doesn’t help to settle the nerves. England respond with a tremendous Maguire header, which Schmeichel does outstandingly well to push clear. Little sign of control, from the Rice and Phillips axis, or threat from the wide players: are England going to need to notch from a set-play, here? Denmark remain the more likely.

From nowhere, Sterling and Shaw do the old overlap routine: we know it’s coming but you try stopping it. Denmark couldn’t but the cross squirts to safety: the corner comes to nothing. Not his fault, especially but Saka has been a relative passenger: Mount, Rice and Phillips have exercised minimal real influence.

An hour in: the crowd try to ‘do their bit’. Partly because they can feel England need them. Interestingly, the Danes make three subs – a bold commitment. And now Southgate is looking to Grealish. A lame cross from Saka may signal his withdrawal… and it does. (Could- and might – write a three zillion word thesis on Grealish(e)s in English Football. But that’s for later. He’s on, to a huge roar, and probably playing wide left again).

Twenty minutes remain. Denmark marginally ahead on points but we’re into a scrappy spell – so often the case after multiple substitutions. Grealish draws a foul and a yellow. Moment of controversy as Kane falls in theatrical style. If he hadn’t, he might have been awarded the pen. Rather poor game now. Barely any spells of possession. Seventy-six minutes. Spot-kicks likely?

Maguire almost puts Grealish in and Christensen stretches so-o far he has to be withdrawn, soon after. Phillips drives but always wide. Mount is lucky to draw a foul: referee’s been mixed. Shaw overhits the free-kick and the crowd quietens – because this is messy, now. That bloke from the Villa can’t chest down – his second poor touch – but I’m feeling for him, somewhat (and guessing I’m not alone). On belatedly and therefore opportunities squeezed: not ideal.

Eighty-five mins and Denmark settling. They at least are effecting some sequences of passing. Some. They’ve made five (5) subs to England’s one. May be a masterstroke from Southgate or may be a further sign of his essential conservatism. The crowd are baying, with some disappointment, now. Six minutes of extra time.

Some excitement as Sterling gets wide but Phillips blazes over. Can see the tension in the faces in the crowd. Kane lies down again on contact. Shameless but the foul is given – out wide. Maguire rises but an easy gather for Schmeichel. Extra time proper upcoming, with neither side showing much quality and only occasional flickers of urgency. Anybody could win this but neutrals will be thinking both Spain and Italy were waay better. (I’m thinking that). England – theoretically the stronger side – have failed almost completely to impose themselves.

Finally, Foden. Grealish slightly into panto mode to draw a further foul. Meh. Kane fashions a half-chance but Schmeichel palms clear… but at least England are threatening. Rice and Mount withdrawn for Foden and Henderson. Some passes, for England. Shaw is back in the game. Corner.

Feels, for the first time for maybe an hour, that a goal may be coming for England. Maguire nods and then Sterling has a yard but drives high. Just the sense that Grealish may be starting to strut. Denmark seem content to soak it up: feels risky.

Sterling races with just one thing in his mind. He gets it. Pen. First thought – he dived – or at the very least he was plainly seeking it. (Get that this is different but not a fan of falling on contact. Again I may be an outlier but when players seek above all to wait for any touch and fall, my heart sinks). This will be both ecstasy and tragedy of sorts… Kane fluffs it, as if to make it even more painful for the Danes, but scores with the rebound. Awful way to win this. Half-time.

Wrighty covers up the deception. Neville may be right in saying England deserve the goal – they probably do – but the manner of it was deeply unsatisfactory for some of us. Sterling has been arguably England’s best player – without being consistently good – but he may have sparked a major philosophical discussion. Meanwhile the crowd sing “It’s coming home”.

Grealish is withdrawn. If that’s a defensive move, it’s dreadful, in my view. It may be an injury. Denmark have lost a little of their sparkle. Matterface patronises them, appallingly. Kane falls out wide and is ‘astonished’ he neither got the foul nor the throw.

England ‘seeing it out’. Brathwaite shoots but Pickford can push past. Corner. Foden might release Kane but Schmeichel reads it. The Danes press. Another corner: five minutes remaining. Blissful phases and luxurious into-the-corners, for Henderson, Foden, Sterling. OH-LAYS. Sterling is greedy when a pass might just end this.

And then it’s over. Joy for a home crowd.

As a fan and an England fan I have mixed feelings. Sterling did what most players are doing. He surged with just that one thing on his mind. Not to smash the ball home but to feel the faintest touch… and go down. Neutrals will condemn him: I will merely say that it’s an unfortunate way to win. My headlines will not be ‘glory, glory’, they will be ‘England win it; they were mixed’. They found a way but again the opposition, for much of the game – despite being away and despite being theoretically outgunned, in terms of personnel – were entirely competitive. Congratulations – genuinely – to Denmark.

So Southgate has indeed got his crew to the final. And in there they may even explode into glorious animation. He will know, though that Italy have quality, and that his policy of offering the opposition a good share of possession will face a sterner test yet. Denmark, for the most part, looked as good as England. Italy, should England sit, may look better.

Minor post-script – for better, for worse. That pen. Sterling is entitled to go searching for a penalty, I get that: it’s not against the rules, as such. But I personally think that aspiration sucks, compared to the historic instinct to simply smash the ball into the top corner. Understand not everyone agrees.

The matter becomes then whether it was actually a foul – and yet somehow the judgement of the officials becomes (arguably) doubly important. A) Because they are charged with judging correctly under the laws and b) because there now may be weightier, more abstract considerations creeping in, which may include that which is within or without of the spirit of the game. (Aaaargh, I know!) We may even be confronting what is right or wrong: at best there is unavoidable baggage. (In saying this, again I get that the referee is only really judging on the actuality or otherwise of the foul. But there may be cheating here – or at best cynicism – and these are *factors*).

For me it was blindingly obvious that Sterling was only ever interested in a penalty – which may be irrelevant – and I think there was no foul committed. So no penalty on either the ‘moral’ or corporeal level. We, as punters or refs, must then consider whether to give a foul against Sterling, for invention/deception and/or maybe even whether we book him… or just have a word.

Beyond the event, I have long been an advocate of penalising players who bring the game into disrepute by diving or attempting to deceive the officials. My panel of ex-players (or similar) would be looking closely at this and either having their own words, publicly, to express their dissatisfaction, or applying a sanction.

Sterling, whom I accept has often been the victim of prejudice or misjudgement, is unfortunately at the centre again, but he’s put himself there. Some pundits may be saying what he did was clever. I think it was shit – and yes, anti-football. The Whole of Ingerland may be celebrating, but the way of it has made it the thinnest of wins.

City Watford.

I suppose this was historic – let the stattos go on about that. I suppose we need to talk about how this happened – meaning how City engineered this (excuse the pun) gulf. And perhaps too, we will need to recalibrate the meaning of this massacre after the financial inquiries are complete. But whilst we are of course entitled to question both the status of City as a club and the legitimacy and honesty of their processes, it feels churlish to mither away at anything happening on the pitch.

Some are saying there is a blandness about City: maybe the Overwhelming Foreign Wedge implies that? As does the sometime listlessness around their home fixtures? Maybe the Catalonian sub-state that is the Management Team will always feel adrift from the original, the real City of the Moss-side alleyways? That might figure.

But Guardiola – from an admittedly high base – has built a wonderful and generally wonderfully fluent football team. A team waaaay too good for all but one other side in this allegedly abundant, allegedly competitive Premier League. Crucially, for me, a team that has had the poet and craftsman David Silva at its beating heart: a team for the skilled and the bright and the creative. A team – with all due respect – at an utterly different level to their opponents yesterday.

In short I’m with Guardiola in the sense that I can separate the ‘issues’ away. He is special. He is a great coach despite those embarrassing riches. His team is magnificent and his legacy in terms of how the game is played is a rich, progressive and beautifully true one. Financial cheating will of course compromise that appreciation – but not deny it.

Here’s how the game was, live…

 

“Abide With Me”. And Tony Book. Sentimental, both, for me but the one kindof glossed-up and the other even more silver-topped than myself, now. Because times do change.

Wemberley has changed, too, of course, since my old man wrote to Tony Book (by then City’s manager) a lifetime ago. The Old Lady of Norf Landun got glossed-up too – and by the sound of things, got fitted up with oversize speakers, to accommodate the ludicrously deafening ‘Announcements’.

But enough of the humbuggery. In sunshine, as so often, this All-New-Again FA Cup Final offers much – or we begin (again) with that feeling around: hope.

City though, are a force that may smash that weirdly-engineered optimism: they are patently in a different league from the waspish underdogs and maybe the butterflies I’m feeling are more to do with that?

First five minutes and Watford *actually do have* the ball. They are somewhere between medium-wasteful and okay with it however – which is good enough, in terms of maintaining the contest.

Ten minutes and rather fascinatingly, nobody on either side has done enough to suggest they’ve settled. Interestingly too, and probably worryingly, the blokes in yellow are setting out two Deep Blocks and challenging their illustrious opponents to thread something through them.

But hold on, in the eleventh minute, with City’s central defence alarmingly absent, Watford should score. Zinchenko is careless, Pereyra is IN… but fails to convert. City respond time and again, through Mahrez. He looks ready… until he passes lamely into touch.

Mercifully, it’s not one-way traffic and we do have a game.

Guardiola will not be satisfied with City’s opening; possession, yes but little in the way of fluency or sustained retention. More than that, Watford have looked as threatening as the typically irresistible sky-blues.

Again Watford threaten. They are maybe unfortunate not to get a pen as the ball strikes Kompany’s arm. But the City skipper is doing pretty much everything to keep offending limbs out of the way – so I’m with the ref. And, rightly, Kevin Friend books Doucoure for an appallingly passionate appeal.

Then City score. It’s a Sunday Leaguer – almost entirely out of character. The perennially gorgeous David Silva scuff-driving in a shot after some crappy head-tennis and the odd air-shot. They don’t deserve it; they don’t have anywhere near their usual level of control… and they don’t care. 1-0.

Wide left is looking like it might be City’s ace – or wide right! But whilst we know Mahrez will beat people and therefore always remain a ‘factor’, Zinchenko is still offering strangely mixed contributions, surging then underachieving.

It may not matter. The domination that all neutrals and all Hornets feared is settling over the game. And it’s 2-0. Bernado curls a beauty round and through and Jesus studs it in… via Sterling’s triumphant hoof. (One for the dispassionate – i.e. in the videozone – to decide upon, that).

In truth the keeper, Gomes, may have done better but the pass was a one of a limited number of clear signals, early doors, that the Champions of Everything might outclass Watford here. Not sure Watford *generally* major in Classy Footie (without being critical) but they have to make something happen now – anyhow, anyway. Deulofeu has shown well enough, but Deeney and Pereyra have lacked presence and maybe the confidence to take responsibility, should it arise.

As half-time approaches, it seems more likely that the gathering Gundogan\Silva/Bernado axis will unpick Watford centrally and possibly embarrass the challengers in the way they’ve embarrassed most, this year. As the whistle breaks, a very big team-talk for Javi Garcia begins. This may be done already.

Lively start for the second period. Deulofeu might score, Jesus might score/does score (disallowed) and the energy in the occasion is lifted. Strangely, Mahrez is withdrawn for de Bruyne. Has he said something to displease the gaffer? Is this just a result of Guardiola’s dissatisfaction with what feels like a seven-out-of-ten performance? (Mahrez has been good-ish).

On the hour de Bruyne is in… and exorcises his customary, obscenely-worldie levels of composure, ten yards out, where most capitulate to hurrying, scurrying and sheer nose-bleeding panic, before finding the corner. Eek. This could be humiliating.

Watford needed a hero – or 12. Whilst nobody seems to be utterly frozen, or utterly lost in Maresville, they can’t find what they need.

Jesus can. He makes it four, in the 67th. A truly great side, without yet playing to their max, are now running away with it. De Bruyne should curl another one in with his left foot in the 69th. Somewhere, Elton John is distractedly tinkling out another melancholy riff.

That the introduction (with all due respect) of Cleverley for Hughes – and Sane for Gundogan – comprises the 70-minute changing-of-the-guard, says most of what needs to be said. Different strata.

No disgrace here, for Watford – though they have been a clear disappointment – but note they have not faced Aguero and actually Sterling has barely had a kick (until he gets that weekly far-post tap-in; 5-0) … and so they cannot realistically compete… and they don’t. 80-odd minutes and I’m still not sure this is much more than a 7/10 performance from City; they’re that good.

From nowhere an arguably ungenerous observation. At the semi-final stage, I really wanted Wolves to come through, in part because I was sure they would test City more than Watford would, or could. We’ll never know but my hunch is that they have more quality and more tactical nous than their mid-table compadres.

I may be indulging here because there really is now a void where the contest should be. Sterling has grabbed a sixth. Yes. It’s 6-0. Guardiola looks mildly embarrassed. Or somehow melancholy. Or awed, perhaps?

Stones – yes, Stones! – should score from yet another break instigated by de Bruyne, who has changed the game, despite looking less than fully mobile, I would say. But you see, de Bruyne is that good.

Manchester City 6 Watford 0.