As yet another scorching Sunday dawned on England, pubs, bars, gardens and town centres awoke to sticky floors, empty pint glasses and the lingering echo of a cult 1990s track being chanted on loop. In contrast to the blinking, head-pounding sense of regret that often welcomes you into a post-night hangover, today’s realisation was one of bliss, joy and utter ecstasy; England are in the semi-finals of a World Cup.
Written by Jack Colman (@JColman95)
Following the dramatic penalty shoot-out victory against Colombia on Tuesday, the four-day gap until the quarter-final against Sweden felt like an age. The mist of Tuesday’s sweat, tears and 5% beers lingered for longer than the average match, such were the circumstances, and the match against the Scandinavians was kept in the shadows until the last couple of days. Against Switzerland, Janne Andersson’s side posed the least threat out of any team at this stage of the World Cup and the general feeling was one of atypical English optimism.
Scars of the past should teach us that English confidence doesn’t end well, especially against Scandinavian sides, but once more Gareth Southgate’s men broke trend and dispatched of Sweden en route to the semi-finals. Headed goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli ensured that England had the game sewn up after 58 minutes and England fans heart-rates were at far less risk than against Colombia in the quarter-final. It was an impressive performance by England and exhibited a sense of professionalism and confidence that this country has not witnessed since the early-to-mid nineties in tournament football.
Digging deeper into England’s performance, there were some outstanding displays by the likes of Jordan Henderson, John Stones and the hero of the day Maguire, as we witnessed the type of quality that got these players into the squad in the first place. The ball was knocked out from the back comfortably and effectively, with Southgate’s faith in Jordan Pickford and his distribution proving to be fruitful in this new system. It can’t be forgotten that, despite England’s dominance, the Everton goalkeeper also made some excellent saves that further engraved his name in English hearts. Maybe one of the biggest positive points actually stems from a negative: Harry Kane was quiet and relatively ineffective, yet England still managed to score twice.
Among the elation, there were some tepid elements of England’s performance that should be questioned before the semi-final against Croatia. The performances of Raheem Sterling and, bar his goal, Dele Alli were poor and Southgate is still faced with the task of getting the best out of two of the squad’s best talents. Alli’s goal came from a run straight out of his Tottenham locker, and we need to see more bravery in his attacking movement. The same can certainly be said of Sterling, as his brightest moments in the game came when he was running directly at Swedish defenders. As aforementioned, Kane was quiet in Samara and found it difficult up against two tall, physical centre-backs. Kieran Trippier put in ten crosses and none of them met an England teammate and I’d put that blame on the players in the box ahead of the Spurs’ wing-back.
However, the above is merely nit-picking in what was a composed and confident England performance. Next up is Croatia, who survived another penalty shoot-out to beat Russia after a 2-2 stalemate. Earlier on in the competition, Croatia were undoubtedly the chosen ones as World Cup dark horses and they showcased their ability with a storming 3-0 demolition of Argentina. There were even those that they would rather play Spain than Croatia in this half of the draw, such was the impact of Modric and co. in the group stages.
Yet, the group and knockout stages verge on being two different tournaments at a World Cup and Croatia’s performances against Denmark and Russia highlighted this once more. They weren’t terrible, but they were tepid and, more importantly, looked like a team that could be beaten. England will be wary of the likes of Modric, Ivan Rakitic, Ivan Perisic and Mario Mandzukic, but on current form the two sides are well balanced and they’re not a team that we should feel inferior to.
It’s a step up for England, but if we want to reach a World Cup final we have to beat good teams. It will be an open game and will test the mettle of fans, coaches and players throughout the whole 90 minutes. Some may look at this game with fear, but if someone had proposed a semi-final with Croatia at the start of the tournament, everyone related to England would have snapped their hand off. Prior to this World Cup, the England squad of 1990 were idolised as a holy fragment of our football history, and this squad has now equalled their achievements. The likes of Pickford, Henderson and Kane will be remembered in the same light as Shilton, Gascoigne and Lineker and Southgate will be spoken about with Sir Bobby Robson in the conversation of historic England managers.
The real excitement? It’s not over yet and with only two games between Harry Kane’s hands and the golden trophy, it really is time to dream.