Have we all calmed down yet? Good! Yep, just a couple of days on from the conclusion of the 2018 World Cup’s last 16 round with England’s epic penalty shootout victory over Colombia, chants of ‘It’s Coming Home’ can still be heard across the nation. It’s in offices, pubs and supermarkets, even Radio 1 have added the 22-year old tune back to its playlists, the track, penned by the Lightning Seeds’ Ian Brodie, and comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, is indicative of the current crop of English players – the young guns that could win it all…or could they?
Not a whole lot was thought of England’s chances before the Russian World Cup got underway. No suggestions of a cheeky semi-final, or even expectations of a quarter-final. No. After finishing bottom of the 2014 World Cup’s ‘Group of Death’ (which was topped by Costa Rica, but let’s move swiftly on from that), and an arguably even more embarrassing defeat to Iceland in Euro 2016’s last 16, the 2018 vintage wasn’t supposed to be a good one. Yet here we are, in early July, with England sat, looking relatively pretty ahead of a quarter-final tie with Sweden, the World Cup final two wins away – World Cup glory, just three.
The momentum began slowly but surely: reports of the English press, usually the harbingers of doom to the country’s football team, being allowed unprecedented access to the 23 players selected by the progressive, forward-thinking Gareth Southgate. A ‘Super Bowl’-style Media Day saw the press get to speak to the entire squad, in one big session. It was innovative stuff from Southgate and the FA, and they even expanded to allow games of darts and pool between the squad and the media.
Rather than a focus on the negatives, Raheem Sterling’s divisive tattoo aside, the mood around the English camp has been that of a feelgood, almost party atmosphere. The squad are hooked on videogame sensation, ‘Fortnite’ and reality TV tripe (had to be said) like ‘Love Island’. They remain active on social media and seem more familiar and relatable to fans than they have done for a while – it’s all a far cry from Fabio Capello’s reign, which saw the 2010 England squad confined to a countryside base in South Africa, which led to claims of the players being ‘bored’ and subject to strict curfews.
Then, it was time for the first game versus Tunisia, and a tonne of questions would have their answers: could Harry Kane and co banish the nightmares of Euro 2016? Did Southgate have enough about him to manage a team at the World Cup? And, more importantly, could England get the three points against a considerably weaker team? The answer to those three questions? Fairly confident yes’!
Sure, it may have come down to a last-minute winner from Kane, but some of the football being played by the side in red was just gorgeous, especially from an England team at a major tournament. Where past sides have appeared stunted, with an inability to keep hold of possession, and a reliance upon several ‘idol’ players (think Beckham, think Rooney), this team were young, quick and exciting to watch. Refereeing injustices aside, 2-1 slightly flattered Tunisia, who survived an early English onslaught and survived long enough to equalise from the penalty spot, before trying to hold out for the draw.
Next up, and Panama. A win was expected from the Three Lions, and boy did it come. Following the first fixture’s tense finale, this game was an absolute breeze, as it should be against a Panama side that were just happy to be at their first World Cup – it didn’t take long before John Stones opened the scoring from a well worked set-piece, other player’s movement giving the Manchester City defender an easy header home. While Tunisia may have got away with wrestling Kane to the ground inside the penalty area, Panama weren’t so fortunate – the man himself slotting him from the spot. Jesse Lingard added a 25-yard screamer, Stones doubled his tally from another corner and Panama gave away ANOTHER penalty in clumsy fashion, Kane scoring for his fourth goal of the tournament. 5-0 at half-time – job done!
A fortuitous Ruben Loftus-Cheek effort which deflected off Kane on its way in, saw the Spurs man notch a World Cup hat-trick, putting him in pole position for the coveted Golden Boot in the process. Panama scored a consolation goal late on, which saw their fans erupt at their first-ever World Cup goal, but England had allowed a nation to dream with a scintillating performance. Sure it was only Panama, but how many times have we watched the Three Lions labour to 0-0 against Algeria, Costa Rica and the like. No, this was a performance to savour – and the country’s confidence was sky high.
You could argue it was job done for Southgate – he’d managed to make the national team lovable again, with a crop of hungry, skilled players whose passion to play for their country was there, clear to see.
While the Belgium game saw both teams make a number of changes, and the classic flat tournament football feel return for England, the 1-0 loss wasn’t going to get too many people down. No, England’s key players got a rest, Belgium grabbed a win, but crucially, with shocks galore in the other groups, England had an easier side of the knockout draw, with a potential quarter-final against either Sweden or Switzerland in the offing – first they just had to deal with the dangerous Colombians.
Winners of Group H, Colombia had shown glimpses of the side that reached the last eight in Brazil 2014, with the Bayern Munich loanee James Rodriguez pulling the strings in midfield in a 3-0 demolition of Poland, that sent Lewandowski and co, going home in the group stage. However, a re-occuring calf injury flared up during the last group game, versus Senegal, and the Colombians biggest threat was a big doubt for their last 16 date with England.
Come gameday, James didn’t even make the bench for the clash – advantage England. With Southgate referring to his starting XI for the Tunisia fixture, England were at full-strength, and began looking the more dangerous of the two teams, however it was a game full of half chances, than convincing efforts on goal, with both teams mustering up just six shots on target between them.
Colombia’s intentions were clear from the off, the South Americans aiming to upset England with tactics that ranged from physical to downright dirty. England, to their credit, did well to rise above the aggressive play from their opponents, with American referee Mike Geiger doing very little to protect them. The referee yellow carded Wilmar Barrios, after the defensive midfielder’s attempted headbutt on Jordan Henderson, yet worse was to come.
After a tense first 45, the sides headed into the half-time break, but not before Raheem Sterling was targeted by Colombia’s coaching staff – with a sly elbow being thrown in his direction. The mood stayed sour from the off in the second half too, with tackles and extra aggravation being thrown in, with England slowly beginning to react to the persistent breaking up of the game.
With Kane being a target in the penalty area again, he was again wrestled to the ground – by Carlos Sanchez. This led to around three minutes of protests from the South Americans, as the lack of gamesmanship was at an all-time low, players surrounding the referee, shouting in his face, with others scuffed the penalty spot, in an attempt to put off Kane, who was lining up for his third penalty of the tournament. Of course, such attempts didn’t work, and Kane slotted home for goal number SIX of this World Cup, becoming England’s second-highest goalscorer at a World Cup in the process (Gary Lineker sits at number one on 10 goals in 12 games, with Kane on six in a staggering 3!).
With half-an-hour to play, the game wasn’t won, though. Colombia continued to niggle away at England, while they actually began to fashion chances and pressure on Pickford’s goal. As the timewasting led to a whopping five minutes of injury time, England looked liked they see the game out, before an outrageous effort by Mateus Uribe from distance drew a wondrous save from the England keeper. The following corner, however, allowed Barcelona centre-back Yerry Mina to rise above the rest and notch a dramatic equaliser.
A 30-minute extra-time period followed, with Colombia looking the more likely team to find the net, Juan Cuadrado missing a golden opportunity. Jamie Vardy and Marcus Rashford were brought on as England pushed late on, with fellow substitute Eric Dier agonisingly heading over from close range. It seemed inevitable the dreaded penalty shootout would be on the cards, for the third time in this last 16 round.
Radamel Falcao and Harry Kane tucked away their penalties with ease, and all looked well for England, until disaster struck and Jordan Henderson’s spot-kick was saved by Arsenal’s David Ospina, in net for Colombia. English fans’ hopes turned to despair, yet another penalty shootout exit looked likely. However, Uribe’s following penalty smashed against the woodwork, allowing England a route back into the game. Jordan Pickford produced an excellent save to cause celebrations around the country, before it all came down to Dier to produce the winning penalty. A nation held its breath as the Spurs midfielder ran up to take his spotkick, which was struck perfectly into the bottom left-hand corner of the net.
England had won a their second-ever penalty shootout, and their first at a World Cup. With the song that has become a trademark (yet again) of the England national team blasting out in Spartak Moscow’s arena, as well as across the length and breadth of England, the players celebrations reminded you just how much the victory meant to them. After two, tough, draining hours, this young team, with their young manager, had come through a classic World Cup test, where other England sides just might have failed, they had succeeded.
Thoughts now turn to Saturday, and the quarter-final tie with Sweden. The open nature of this World Cup, has led English fans to ponder and believe, can this side do it? With a world-class striker in Harry Kane, supported in attack by players with bags of skill and pace, there’s always a chance this side can go further in this tournament. Sweden’s resolute defence will be tough to break down, but the country should take each game at a time, enjoy it, savour it, World Cup’s don’t come around often, and neither do England teams like we’re seeing at the moment.
They might just, just, be the team to finally bring it home, after 52 years of long, long hurt.
Can England beat Sweden on Saturday and reach their first World Cup semi-final in almost three decades? And could they even go one step further and reach their second World Cup final in Moscow? Let me know in the comments below!