The 2018 World Cup: A New England
Ultimately, the biggest surprise of the entire afternoon was that it passed with so little incident. We’re used to an air of melodrama around England matches – at least last week’s game against Colombia an air of familiar territory about it, even though surviving a last minute equaliser and then winning a penalty shootout clearly isn’t within the England supporter’s usual sphere of experience – and defeating Sweden by two goals to nil in Samara yesterday afternoon had the feel of a run of the mill qualifying game about it. It’s not supposed to be like this. It’s not supposed to feel like… just another day at the office.
Within five minutes of the kick-off, certainly, English nerves were settled by Sweden having given the ball away for no immediately discernable reasons on three occasions already. If nerves were a factor on this particular afternoon, it was a welome reminder that they can work both ways. And for the next twenty-five minutes, the fare offered up by both teams wasn’t particularly enticing for neutral viewers. England prodded and poked. Sweden absorbed and threw the occasional counterpunch. Mostly, though, this felt like a sparring match between two evenly matched sides. Not necessarily particularly edifying at times, but steady, at least.
After half an hour had been played, however, England’s set-piece advantage kicked in. Ashley Young’a corner kick from the left-hand side was floated perfectly into the Swedish area and Harry Maguire bundled his way through the mass of defenders to send a power downward header into the corner of the goal. Pandamonium. Or, at least, a very restricted form of pandamonium, informed by more than fifty years of finding strange and interesting ways to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and in particular that very English habit of taking the lead in a match of high importance, only to throw away that lead as the match wears on and tempers started to get frayed.
There were, of course, scares, and two minutes into the second half Jordan Pickford was called upon to make an outstanding one-handed save from Marcus Berg. A little over ten minutes later, however, England had doubled their lead with some short passing and a chipped cross from Young which was headed in with the minimum of fuss from Delle Alli, over whose head something of a question mark had been hanging since he picked up an injury during their opening match against Tunisia. There were, of course, flashpoints of tension, most notably when Pickford saved brilliantly again, this time from Viktor Claesson, but on the whole the remaining thirty minutes passed without incident. No late scares. No moments of baffling, self-induced stupidity. The full-time whistle blew, and England had beaten Sweden with a degree of comfort.
England, then, find themselves in a World Cup semi-final, and those of us who are old enough to be able to remember Turin in 1990 and Wembley in 1996 should probably check ourselves, in terms of commenting critically on the excitement of those that have not witnessed this before. The last couple of years have been fractious and febrile in this country. The atmosphere has been tetchy and intemperate, and it started to feel some time before the World Cup finals even started that we all needed a break, something to take our minds off the state of the outside world altogether, if only for a short while. And the conflation of heatwave, the likability – and success – of the team, and the manner in which manager Gareth Southgate has carried himself over the last few weeks has felt like stars aligning. No matter what happens from now on, we needed this.
If watching England play normally requires an element of mental preparation, the relatvely fuss-free manner in which they sauntered through to the semi-final coupled with their match being the first of the day left us all with something of a surfeit of nervous entry ahead of the match that would decide England’s opponents in their semi-final match. Russia and Croatia felt fairly well-matched going into the game, and on similar trajectories, as well. Both had started the tournament with an unexpected degree of elan before tailing off as their matches progressed. Both had required penalty shootouts to get through their second round matches and the technical superiority of the Croatian players felt matched by the fearsome atmosphere that would accompany the Russian team inside the Fisht Olympic Stadium in Sochi.
It was tight, and it was nervy. When Russia took the lead just after the half hour with a wonderful curling shot from Dennis Cherysev, Croatia bit back eight minutes later with a goal from Andrej Karmaric. These two moments, however, were mere twinkles of excitement in ninety minutes of otherwise unprepossessing football in a match that seemed almost determined to force its way to extra-time, whether we liked it or not. At least once there, though, it gave us drama. Eleven minutes in, Domagoj Vida’s downward header squeezed through the Russian defence as though in slow motion before falling over the line. It was apt, of that there could be little doubt. If Croatia were going to get through this match in one hundred and twenty minutes, it was only realisttically going to come from falling over the line. Sadly for lovers of narrative, though, with five minutes to play of extra-time Mário Fernandes headed Alan Dzagoev’s free-kick in to bring Russia level again.
The penalty shootout was… flawed. Smolov attempted an Antonin Panenka recreation with the very first kick, only to find that the Croatian goalkeeper Subasic had guessed correctly and had left enough out of his dive for a trailing arm to block the shot. Three kicks later, Russia were level again after Kovacic’s low, tame shot was palmed away by Akinfeev. This time, however, Russia’s luck finally ran out. Fernandes, whose goal had hoisted them to the shootout in the first place, dragged his shot well wide of the post, and Luka Modric’s kick to put Croatia’s noses in front only came about with deflections off Akinfeev’s hand and one of the posts. Ivan Rakitic’s kick to win the game couldn’t have been much less dramatic, suckering Akinfeev into diving the wrong way, he steered the ball confidently into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal to seal Croatia’s progress as Sochi fell to silence on an dramatically undramatic night of football.
Russia, then, exit the tournament having started with a flourish before eventually tailing off. Pre-tournament fears about the team’s lack of ability proved to be somewhat overstated but, having won their opening two matches against Saudi Arabia and Egypt at a canter, they failed to win any of their next three without the assistance of a penalty shootout, although they can at least reflect upon the fact that it also required a penalty shootout to eliminate them from the tournament and that there would seem to be plenty to build upon to dig the team out of the funk in which it had found itself.
Croatia, on the other hand, had ended the group stages as probably the team of the tournament, to that point. Since then, however, they’ve required two penalty shootouts to edge their way through to the semi-finals and there was little to be seen in last night’s performance that England would be unnecessarily afraid of, ahead of next week’s match. Sure enough, they have, in players such as Modric and Rakitic, players who are capable of unlocking the best teams in the world, but at the same time they’ve spent large periods of their last two matches looking stodgier at times than we might have expected. Just as the other semi-final match between France and Belgium is, this looks like a match that’s too close to call.