Is It Coming Home?
England have to beat Sweden, and then one of Croatia or Russia to reach a World Cup final. World. Cup. Final!
Right from the moment England qualified for Russia 2018 last October, never did it even cross anyone’s mind that reaching the final two of the most prestigious tournament in football was even a feasible target. Given that they haven’t won a knockout game in international football since 2006, reaching the quarter-final was regurgitated as a credible goal.
However, as is often the case in such tournaments, the bracket and draws have opened up allowing Gareth Southgate and his lions the perfect opportunity to reach the stage at which form and talent often go out of the window.
Granted, we may be getting ahead of ourselves and there are hurdles to overcome, but England overcame one big hurdle by coming from behind to win a penalty shootout in such a classy manner. Jordan Pickford’s save from Carlos Bacca was outstanding, but so was Kieran Tripper’s excellent spot-kick moments before to drag the 1966 winners’ level.
In normal time, Colombia tried their best to draw England into a dogfight, pushing the game to edge hoping someone would bite and go down to 10-men (ala Rooney against Ronaldo in 2006). Not this England, they were more streetwise and the likes of Jordan Henderson and Harry Kane played the game well.
Now, the Three Lions face Sweden, a team Gareth Southgate stated they have a poor record against due to “underestimating them” in the past. Indeed, England have won just two of the last 10 meetings between the two sides, but that stat doesn’t tell the full picture.
Most of those clashes came by way of friendlies and qualifiers and the record reads differently when taking into account that England are undefeated against Sweden at major tournaments since 2002.
The last clash was a thriller, as England came back from 2-1 down to win 3-2, thanks to second-half strikes from Theo Walcott and Danny Welbeck. It shows that Sweden can be defeated, especially a Zlatan Ibrahimovic-less Sweden. Then only the hosts Russia or talented Croatia stand in the way of England’s date with destiny.
Southgate and his team will have invariably mapped out a few plans heading into this tournament, whether that was with the players or internally among his staff. Every now and then, though, plans must be altered and if Southgate felt the quarter-finals was a respectable stage to reach, that is no longer enough. Not when this opportunity has arisen.
It’s either a World Cup final or a massively missed opportunity which may not come around for another lifetime. No pressure!