By Neil Leverett
- England overcame penalty hoodoo against on Colombia Tuesday in World Cup
- Eric Dier sends Three Lions through for first quarter-final berth since 2006
- Gareth Southgate’s men face Sweden for a place in the final four in Samara on Saturday
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – After booking their place in the last eight of the World Cup in Russia, what did we learn from the Three Lions’ heroic penalties victory against Colombia on Monday night?
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England’s penalties hoodoo is (temporarily) over
After Tuesday night’s last 16 meeting with Colombia once again went down the penalty kicks – having been within minutes of a normal time win – the nation held their collective breath, with the all-too familiar sense of impending dread and exhaustive tension.
As Jordan Henderson missed the sixth effort from the spot, it seemed as if history was repeating again; it was all to much to bear. But after Mateus Aribe crashed his effort on the bar, Kieran Trippier manfully hammered his penalty high into the net and Jordan Pickford’s stunning stop to deny Carlos Bacca, Eric Dier was handed the chance to exorcise arguably the biggest sporting demon that still existed to the day.
Approximately 30 million silent prayers were held in bars, clubs, pubs and offices not only in England but across the globe, as the Spurs man sent his effort low into the net as England midfielder wheeled away into the Moscow night, accompanied by a footballing nation entering delirium. There could have been few emotions felt those the watched the winning spot kick find the net so sweet, after seeing the Three Lions end the most nightmarish of sporting scenarios and breaking the mental barrier.
At least temporarily. With Los Cafeteros negotiated, Sweden lie in store on Saturday afternoon for a place in the semi-finals for the first time in a major tournament since football came home (the first time) at Euro ’96. If England are to reach the final four, the Swedes will be bent on denying their customary tournaments via an obdurate back line that have only conceded twice this tournament. That could mean the very real prospect of a penalties for the second time in four days. There are many psychological battles yet to win this summer if football is to come home for real.
Monday night at the Spartak Moscow stadium was further evidence of this groups of Lions’ courage. These 23 men are not needing a trip to the Land of Oz anytime soon.
Head coach Gareth Southgate has always believed his players are of stronger mind and will than previous squads, and that now cannot be refuted.
Having been within 120 seconds of booking the spot in the last eight outright, to see Yerry Mina’s 92nd-minute headed equaliser was a veritable dagger to the heart of the English rose, in danger of putting the Lion down. But the spirit the eschews from every orifice of England players is burning, typified – but not solely – by the rise of Trippier this tournament as one of the most capable full-back around, is the midst of a squad of such in-experience.
But this band of brothers have again shown the collective courage of a family of Leos on the biggest stage, and their penalties were the calibre we are used to from the Germans or Italian. Not the England national team. Having recovered from a potential knockout blow in the Russia capital on Monday night, to see victory on penalties come from this troupe of hungry lions, is so refreshing to see the Three Lions living up to the name, without the cliche.
Southgate must be en-route to honours
Perhaps the greatest and most iconic image from the drama to that unfolded, was not of the pile-on of England shirts on top of one another in the throes of ecstasy after winning, but of the picture of Southgate himself mobbed by members of his own staff, having finally been on right end of penalties.
After seeing his sudden death spot-kick saved by Andreas Kopke almost 22 years to the day at Wembley against Germany, Southgate was finally able to bring closure to a plus two-decade period that not only spawned pizza commercial but left the England coach in the bracket of managers who were almost set for mediocrity.
That has now been firmly cast aside, and his bravery in opting to rest players against Belgium has now paid its’ full dividends, as Southgate’s methods have been vindicated both on and off the field also.
England now have a real sense of belief whatever happens in the remainder of this tournament and for that alone, Southgate merits commendation. What level of such accolade is yet to be determined, but if do England manage to add a second iconic world champions star to the nation colours, there must surely be a trip to Buckingham Palace in the not too distant future for the former England defender.
England will continue to face physical approach
One of the main narratives of this tournament has been the physical approach adopted by both African and South and Latin American opponents in the penalty area. As they face Europeans for the second time however this weekend, it will be a similar tale.
Sweden’s best chance to stop England will be by snuffing out the likes of John Stones and Harry Kane from set-pieces, but will be watched like a hawk by referee Bjorn Kuipers.
If the Swedes are put one side, a potential meeting with either Croatia or Russia would again likely see scenes more accustomed to professional, but such is the threat posed in the 18-year area from this new England XI, it is in some ways the only option.
As we have seen however, the hands-on tactic is eventually backfiring and one would imagine in the course of 90 minutes, that further cases for penalties could be heard in heat of Samara.
Obdurate Swedes block semi-final path
Sweden now stand in the path of further World Cup progress for the hungry but potentially rather weary lions. After taking advantage of a lacklustre opening group game versus South Korea, the Yellow-Blue have grown into the tournament and were denied a deserved draw versus now eliminated Germany days later.
An outstanding showing versus Mexico and then Switzerland on Tuesday has seen Janne Andersson’s side into the last eight for the first time since USA ’94 where the Scandinavians finished third.
England largely restricted Colombia to handful of openings in the final third, and Sweden are likely to set up to frustrate which could cause issues with questions still lingering over quality in unlocking stubborn defences.
The Swedes have lacked anything close to an attacking threat this summer especially in front of goal, but that is not where their threat lies. The Swedish defence are a combined unit in similar vein to how England themselves have led a national odyssey in the Motherland and continue to be led by Andreas Granqvist who is set to stay on in Russia, despite the birth of his child back home.
If Sweden do venture forward, Emil Forsberg will be the source of the bulk of their force, but the emphasis against England will be to frustrate and nullify the pace and speed of the front four.
England’s record against Sweden does make for good reading, but having finally ended a run of winless major tournament matches at Euro 2012, the upper hand is slightly with Southgate’s side as they face familiar foes on Saturday.
England play Sweden for a place in the semi-finals of the World Cup on Saturday afternoon in Samara, Russia at 3pm BST
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