By Neil Leverett
- England swept aside Sweden on Saturday 2-0 to reach World Cup semi-finals
- Three Lions reach last four for the first time in 28 years, courtesy of Harry Maguire and Dele Alli goals
- Gareth Southgate’s men face Croatia on Wednesday evening for place in final
MOSCOW, RUSSIA – After booking their place in the last four of the World Cup, what did we learn from England as the Three Lions continue to roar on in Russia?
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No, we aren’t dreaming…
If it wasn’t enough putting to bed the penalty shoot-out hoodoo against Colombia less than a week ago, to finally come out on the winning end of a major tournament quarter-final after a run of four consecutive losses is enough for one to question if this summer is all a dream.
Happily, that notion is not the case and after largely composed and angst-free win over the Yellow-Blue in Samara over the weekend there is now a real prospect of the stars aligning and for football to come again after 52 years.
There is of course much work left to do, but the mere premise of having to record just another two wins to lift the World Cup trophy at the Luzhniki Stadium this Sunday, has a nation hoping this most lucid of dreams is not yet over.
Perseverance key with Alli
In the throes of English ecstasy on Saturday in Samara, it also was an afternoon of enlightenment for Gareth Southgate. After a nervous start and indeed opening half for Dele Alli where the Spurs man conceded possession no less than seven times in the opening period, on resumption the midfield star was a changed man.
From the whistle in the second half Alli was transformed and pressed higher and ran harder to retrieve the ball. As a individual whom ‘confidence player’ is an appropriately assigned moniker, to see the 22-year-old notched his first World Cup goal was a big milestone for both he and the Three Lions.
Whilst Alli has had a checkered tournament to date down to both lack of form and injury, as Tottenham fans will attest, an in-form Alli is a dangerous one, and as Croatia approach in midweek, he could be the ‘X factor’ against Vatreni in the Russian capital.
Blossoming Maguire nets reward
In past tournaments, the Three Lions’ defence has been a major thorn in any aspirations of a lengthy tournament odyssey. Despite the obvious risks in almost tearing up the playbook for England sides of the past, Southgate’s bold ploy to switch to a back-three wing-back system as little as two months ago is paying off handsomely.
Whilst Kyle Walker has slotted in adeptly as something close to sweeper in the back four, and Kieran Trippier’s stock has sky-rocketed during the course of the past month, it is Harry Maguire whose stocks have risen furthest – almost exponentially so.
The Leicester City man has always ability even when moving up through the Hull City ranks, but up to now it seemed his major threat from set-pieces were hit forte.
Not only have we see that element come to fruition in the Motherland, but Maguire’s superior aerial ability has been boasted on the grand stage, coupled with the coolest of cool heads in playing out from the back of defence.
His goal against Sweden however was just the icing on the cake for the hard work and diligence portrayed against Tunisia, Panama, Colombia and now Janne Andersson’s men. The hope is there is more to come in the final week of the tournament.
Croats watershed moment for Lions
The accusation has been pointed that their 4/5 win ratio this summer has been down largely to lesser opponents. Whilst that may be true in some respects, that will change this Wednesday as Croatia stand between the Three Lions and only their second major final in football history.
Zlatko Dalic’s men were regarded as something as a dark horse to go all the way in Russia, and after disposing of Argentina, Nigeria, Iceland, Denmark and most recently the hosts, Vatreni now meet England for a date with destiny against either France or Belgium next Sunday.
It is true that the Croats may suffer from a certain amount of fatigue after playing back-to-back periods of extra time and penalties in the last week, but any side that boasts a midfield or Ivan Rakitic and Luka Modric will not lack quality.
The presence of both key players could force the England head coach into a tactical rethink in deploying two holding midfielders to nullify that tandem threat. With Jordan Henderson now a doubt however for Wednesday, Eric Dier could be called upon to deliver more heroics after netting the winning penalty against Los Cafeteros.
With Ivan Perisic, Ante Rebic also and a side more likely to play the offense card in a few days time, the test will be a sizeable one to overcome. However England will be quietly confident that their wave of pace from front to back could again finally silence any remaining doubters.
So, is it coming home?
As documented, Croatia will be by far the biggest test yet to face Southgate and his hungry Lions. Whilst the nation is again gripped by football fever – only this time of the World Cup brand – the hope is now real that this could be the moment in time to seize sporting infamy.
When St. George’s Park was opened by the FA in 2012, the initial target was to become world champions in the space of ten years. That timeline is now firmly on course, but their chances in Qatar four years from now will surely not be a favourable as the path handed this year.
If Croatia are negotiated, the almost unthinkable will be reached with a World Cup final at the same venue on Sunday afternoon, but whoever the Three Lions were to play, Southgate and his merry band will be heavy underdogs.
Said tag is one that England risen to the occasion in the face of, but after being favourites to pass through their ‘easier’ knockout stages to this point, pressure has not been a burden either.
A meeting to become champions against either Les Bleus or Red Devils would be remarkable, where defeat by that time would not even bear consideration. It could be coming home, but we will know for sure if the chance is there by Wednesday evening.
England face Croatia for a place in the World Cup final on Wednesday evening at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow at 7pm BST
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