It’s the hardest England starting XI to pick of modern times, but Gareth Southgate has removed one cause for indecision. There will be no special treatment for the four players on yellow cards as the England manager tries to avoid the high of the Germany win descending into the low of a loss to Ukraine.
“No. I don’t really understand that rationale,” Southgate said of the idea that he might tailor his team selection around the risk of suspension in a semi-final to Harry Maguire, Declan Rice, Kalvin Phillips and Phil Foden - who have all been booked. “I understand strategically you might like to do that, but I can’t think of a country in the world that would do that for a quarter final— and especially not a country that’s only been to three semi-finals in its history.
“No, I think we’ve got to focus on tomorrow. I think it would be a big error for us to focus on anything else and I think it would be an insult to Ukraine as well, so we won’t base any decisions on yellow cards. We did in the last group game because we knew we’d qualified. Now we play to win and we’ve got to have everyone available.”
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ROME, ITALY - JULY 02: In this handout picture provided by UEFA, Gareth Southgate, Head Coach of England speaks to the media during the England Press Conference ahead of the UEFA Euro 2020 Quarter Final match between Ukraine and England at A. Roma Lifesty

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Everyone, perhaps, except Bukayo Saka, who sustained a “knock” in training and is England’s only doubt in Rome, where Southgate isn’t worried about fatigue. “Although the game the other day was intense and emotional it was only 90 minutes so I think everybody is fine in terms of physical load,” he said. “We of course have got a strong squad and a strong bench as well.’
After silencing those critics who accused him of conservatism in the first four matches Southgate is free to pick his first XI in a calmer environment. But the clamour to throw on the young guns in this England squad never abates, it only takes a break.
It was pointed out to him that Jack Grealish and Foden have yet to play together at Euro 2020. “Absolutely they can work together, they’ve played for us in the past together,” Southgate said. “We’ve just got such a strong array of attacking talent, I’ve said all along it’s impossible to keep everybody happy.”
A complication, if you can call it that, is that Raheem Sterling has scored three of England’s four goals and is undroppable. Southgate says: “Of course Raheem has been on fire so his goals have made it more difficult to get in on that left-hand side that they favour, so it’s not an easy situation, but of course it’s a strong situation for us as a team and of course all the players are committed to the team doing well.”

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The ‘golden generation’ of 2002-2006 ended up wearing the label of a “quarter-final team.” This one has already reached a World Cup semi-final so its epitaph will be more flattering.
Yet losing to Ukraine would complete a trio of tournament defeats to smaller nations with nothing like the Premier League’s financial clout. Iceland (2016), Croatia (2018), and Ukraine (2021) would pivot England’s inability to beat the big countries in knock-out games to vulnerability against middle-ranking, over-achieving opponents.
To stop it, Southgate faces new complexities. First, after four games in the Wembley comfort zone England are transported to the scene of a fondly remembered battle: Rome, where Glenn Hoddle’s team qualified for the 1998 World Cup with a 0-0 draw that was more compelling than the result suggests.
Second - those four yellow cards. Three of the four are defensive players who run a greater risk of mistiming a tackle. Against Germany, Rice and Phillips were booked in the first 45 minutes and Maguire joined them 13 minutes from the end. All could face delicate decisions in one-on-ones between selflessness and self-preservation.

ROME, ITALY - JULY 02: In this handout picture provided by UEFA, Harry Maguire of England and Gareth Southgate, Manager of England talk to the media during the England Press Conference ahead of the UEFA Euro 2020 Quarter Final match between Ukraine and En

Image credit: Getty Images

Third comes fatigue, which is bound up with increased heat in Rome. London’s cool, cloudy conditions now give way to a forecast of 27 degrees when the game kicks off in Italy. In the outfield, John Stones, Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, Rice and Phillips have started all four matches. Ben Chilwell, Ben White, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Conor Coady, Sam Johnstone and Aaron Ramsdale (both goalkeepers) are the England players yet to swing a boot in matches. Those arguing that Southgate should “give minutes” to fringe players meanwhile mistake a European Championship quarter-final for a 38-game league campaign.
England’s stats are those of a mainstream European power: progress from the bad old days of 4-4-2 and playing without the ball. They're running at 86% pass accuracy and 54% possession. Perhaps not to the levels of some, but a marked improvement from the past. They’ve covered 418.6km compared to Ukraine’s 456.8km and were spared the 120-minute marathon Andriy Shevchenko’s men endured last time out. Crucially England’s four clean sheets stand out against the six goals Ukraine have conceded in their four games.
Complacency is England’s other enemy, and it’s significant that Southgate has made more than one reference recently to the English habit of thinking ‘lesser’ nations are there to be blown away. This delusion stretches back to their earliest days in tournament football. It was suppressed at the worst of the low points - in the 1970s, or in 2016 - but Southgate knows it’s never far from the surface of public opinion. His challenge this week has been to stop over-confidence infecting the thoughts of his players. The sight of Man City’s Oleksandr Zinchenko and Andriy Yarmolenko of West Ham in yellow shirts may help to keep them ‘honest.’
They will know too that tournaments are changed by dramatic interventions. Ukraine’s winner against Sweden was scored by Artem Dobyk, who made the squad only after Júnior Moraes was injured, and came on in Glasgow because Yarmolenko was injured. Dobyk’s first goal for Ukraine arrived in his first tournament appearance. These are the unforeseeable dramas that make championships so compelling and put the big guns at risk.
England’s reward for not succumbing to complacency, heat, fatigue, selection errors or an underdog ambush would be their first Euro semi-final since 1996, and only their second in all (the 1968 European Nations Cup, when they finished third, is recognised by Uefa as part of the championship’s history). It may be a hard team to pick, but Southgate knows how he will pick it, with only victory in mind.
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