On Monday afternoon, I wrote that England’s biggest hurdle on the road to the World Cup final would be their round of 16 tie with Colombia (you can find that article here). A physical squad full of talent, pace, youthful exuberance, and a knack for shithousing.
They may have been without star man James Rodriguez, but they pushed hard. No other team on England’s side of the knockouts has quite the same mash of youth and experience, physicality and organisation, or flair and clinicality.
As is the case prior to many an England game, a lot of fans had thrown logic out of the window and replaced it with blind faith. “We’ll smash them, what have the Colombians ever done? Apart from produce great coffee?”
It was far from that simple though. The odds were somewhat stacked against England, in more than one way. Since 1996, the Three Lions had previously won only NINE percent of their knockout matches aired on ITV.
They hadn’t won a knockout game at a World Cup since 2006, some 12 years ago. In terms of penalties, they had the worst record worldwide on this stage, with three losses from three. It was 22 years since they defeated Spain on penalties at Euro ’96.
Despite all of that, however, the boys did it. They even did it on penalties, making Jordan Henderson’s miss only a side note to the unfair agenda against him. And true to my word, I genuinely believe that is the biggest hurdle jumped as England hope to make their first World Cup final in a generation.
Whilst some are happy to get caught up in the occasion, filled with nothing but optimism at the mere sight of the World Cup hashtag on Twitter, there are others who have been hurt one too many times before. Those who have seen the ills of this national side and those gone by, and are filled with pessimism when they’re asked how they feel about the chances of adding a second star to the badge.
I like to think I’m somewhere between the two, for the record.
Now is the time for the optimists to be realists and the pessimists to believe. ‘Can England go all the way’ shouldn’t be the question, but rather can they take the next step? As soon-to-be Sir Gareth said, we’ve drastically underestimated the Swedes before, winning only eight of the previous 24 encounters.
Ranked 12th in the official FIFA rankings, we’re now the highest rated side on this side of the draw. Can we beat 25th placed Sweden? You’d hope so. It will take some patience, a lot of organisation, and as much grit as we’ve shown, but the Three Lions are rightly favourites.
Suddenly, after all the talk pre-tournament was about taking the pressure off and lowering expectations, it’s looking like a quarter-final exit would constitute failure. It’s been a successful World Cup so far for Kane and co, and to become another giant of this event eliminated by a minnow in comparison would be a huge disappointment.
Sweden is a team that should be beaten, who are arguably overachieving. Croatia or Russia in the semi-final? Russia – the lowest ranked side in the entire tournament – are certainly overachieving, though the support of the nation and team togetherness is clearly a huge boost to them. Croatia have quality all over the park, but they don’t have a player like Kane up top.
Goal scorers like Kane make the difference, assuming the rest of the team can remain organised behind him. You can say many things about this England squad; they could create more from open play, they could have more experience, they could’ve brought different players with different qualities.
Winning a final wasn’t what the chosen 23 have been preparing for. The final is just a game, and winning that wouldn’t be half as difficult as getting there no matter who the opponent. Realistically, you need at least five wins to make that coveted last match and be in contention for the trophy, and England already have three.
The quality of this young and at one point seemingly hopeless squad has brought about a reconnection between the fans and the footballers. This is the first time since 1966 England have gone further than Germany in a World Cup, and it’s the best chance they’ve had in my lifetime to make the final of a major tournament.
Is football coming home? I wouldn’t know. I can tell you that there’s a winnable game on the BBC this weekend though…