Southgate: 'I never felt that our Euro campaign would end here'

England's fate hung by a thread on Sunday evening in the Euro 2024 round of 16 match against Slovakia (2-1), but coach Gareth Southgate never doubted a positive outcome.

Southgate: 'I never felt that our Euro campaign would end here'
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England was heading towards elimination deep into extra time due to a first-half goal by Ivan Schranz, until Jude Bellingham forced an extension with a bicycle kick. In the extra time, Harry Kane quickly put the Three Lions, deemed title favorites, ahead, preventing a humiliating exit for Southgate's men.

"It may sound crazy, but I never felt that the tournament would end for us tonight," responded the frequently criticized coach on Sunday evening to ITV after the match. "You felt that there was still hope. We can create chaos; the ball can always fall in our favor. But I didn't expect him to finish it like that."

Fifteen minutes before the end, Southgate even considered taking Bellingham off. "We had the idea that Jude was exhausted and that we needed to bring fresh blood onto the field. But you know the impact he can have on a match. These are the moments you count on him. Great players make the difference in big games."

England's play seemed sluggish for a long time, but according to Southgate, that was also due to Slovakia's performance. "They are a good team, and it took us a long time to figure out how to play under their pressure. You have to stay patient. You could feel the anxiety in the stadium when we were behind, but you have to keep believing."

Southgate observed that the play improved in the second half, especially when first Cole Palmer and later Eberechi Eze came onto the field. "We patiently kept looking for an opening. The substitutes had a positive effect, but in the end, we needed a throw-in. When you have increased the pressure like that, it can happen when the opponent becomes exhausted."

The match against Slovakia was a true test of character for the English squad. From the outset, Slovakia's disciplined defense and strategic pressing put England on the back foot. Ivan Schranz's goal in the first half only heightened the pressure on Southgate's team. The Slovakian side, known for their resilience, made it difficult for England to find any rhythm or create clear-cut chances.

In the second half, Southgate made crucial adjustments. The introduction of Cole Palmer and later Eberechi Eze injected much-needed energy and creativity into the team. Palmer's dynamic runs and Eze's dribbling skills began to unsettle the Slovakian defense. Despite these changes, England's efforts seemed futile as they struggled to break through.

As the clock ticked down, the atmosphere in the stadium grew increasingly tense. Fans were on edge, and the pressure on the players was palpable. In the 95th minute, the breakthrough finally came. Jude Bellingham's spectacular bicycle kick brought England level, sending the match into extra time. The goal was not just a moment of brilliance but a testament to Bellingham's persistence and quality.

Extra time saw England capitalize on their momentum. Harry Kane's early goal in the additional period showcased the team's determination and clinical finishing. With the lead secured, England focused on maintaining their advantage, while Slovakia, now chasing the game, began to show signs of fatigue.

Southgate's decision-making was critical throughout the match. His tactical changes and the timely substitutions played a significant role in turning the tide. Reflecting on the game, Southgate highlighted the importance of patience and belief. "You could feel the anxiety in the stadium when we were behind, but you have to keep believing," he noted. His faith in his players and their ability to deliver under pressure was vindicated by the result.

Looking ahead, this hard-fought victory will serve as a valuable experience for England. It tested their resolve, showcased their depth, and highlighted the impact of key players like Bellingham and Kane. The win not only advances them in the tournament but also strengthens their confidence as they prepare for the challenges ahead.

Southgate's ability to inspire and manage his squad will be crucial as the competition intensifies. The lessons learned from the Slovakia match resilience, tactical flexibility, and the importance of seizing crucial moments will be essential for England's quest to lift the Euro 2024 trophy.