Tuesday 11 December 2018

Comment: Fortunate England may see football coming home - but Sweden won't be losing any sleep

After passing penalty test Southgate's men face tougher task

England celebrate their penalty shoot-out victory over Columbia penalty at Spartak Stadium last night. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
England celebrate their penalty shoot-out victory over Columbia penalty at Spartak Stadium last night. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

We are veering into strange territory now. Penalties functioning as England's salvation. Neutrals being reasonably happy that they did, given how little Colombia brought to this game.

And the prospect that football, as the Baddiel & Skinner song goes, might actually be coming home.

The case would have been stronger this morning had Gareth Southgate's charges survived the final seconds of normal time and delivered a win that would probably have been welcomed by the purists.

When a triumph for England over Colombia can be a construed as a result for positive football, then this is no ordinary tournament.

But their inability to defend a corner punished a loss of direction in the final 15 minutes, and it condemned them to an extra-time battle that raised questions about their ability to truly exploit a weak side of the draw. It will have taken a physical toll too.

Once the elation of penalty shootout glory had passed, England looked like a side that was in need of a lie-down.

Sweden will not lose sleep between now and Saturday in Samara. They have a good record against England too, and are a much better organised outfit than an erratic Colombian operation that played in fits and starts.

Remember, Holland and Italy didn't even make it to Russia because Sweden were mentally stronger than them when it came to the crunch. Perhaps the shock of nearly letting this one slip will teach England a valuable lesson about switching off.

Atmosphere

Make no mistake about it, the better side prevailed from an eagerly-anticipated round of 16 tie in Moscow.

And the atmosphere should be factored into the analysis. This was an away game for England, outnumbered and outsung in all corners of the ground. In terms of volume and atmosphere, this was closer to Bogota than Birmingham.

To muted cheers, the Russians pumped out 'Three Lions', England's Euro '96 anthem, on the stadium screens before kick-off.

The timeline is dated now; 30 years of hurt have actually extended to 52. But some of the lyrics have retained their relevance throughout the additional years of disappointment. The line that 'England's gonna blow it away, gonna throw it away.'

And they tried their best to do so, especially as Colombia were there for the taking - a rabble for 75 minutes. They were the team that looked to be struggling with the burden of stifling expectation.

Yes, they were shorn of James Rodriguez, their inspirational playmaker, who makes them an infinitely better side.

And coach Jose Pekerman adopted a defensive formation without his talisman, reverting to the 4-3-2-1 formation they had used for difficult qualifying games.

But that doesn't excuse or explain their absence of proper footballing ambition, the dramatic response to every bad decision and the obsession with stopping England from playing which smacked of a disproportionate amount of respect.

In a country where football is joyful, this was joyless. Fear dressed as intimidation.

England, by contrast, were playing the role of the confident and patient European side keeping possession and playing the ball out from the back. In a red-hot atmosphere, they impressed in the early minutes.

Colombia tried to find weakness in Harry Maguire, and Juan Cuadrado consistently attempted to sprint and close him down. But England were able to deal with it, which only served to increase South American frustrations.

By the half-hour mark, Maguire was striding confidently forward across the halfway line.

Southgate's side did lose their way a bit as the interval approached, but there was actually a feeling that Colombian negativity was dragging them down rather than the other way around.

The skirmish around the Lucas Barrios headbutt on Jordan Henderson did upset the rhythm.

Henderson's theatrics would have landed him a minor role in a Neymar-led drama, and they might even have weakened his case if VAR explored it, but the simple fact is that it was a red-card offence.

England got over it, and referee Mark Geiger eventually made the penalty decision which gave them the lead. Red shirts remained in the ascendency.

Around the hour mark, John Stones swaggered from his central defensive brief to skilfully escape a rare Colombian press. Ten minutes later, he executed a precise through ball to Dele Alli as England glided out of the danger zone.

This was England with an Italian flavour. Yes, they were finding it hard to create clear-cut chances, and the suspicion lingers that the absence of a really outstanding deep-lying creative midfielder might still be their downfall, but they didn't need to go chasing.

Initiative was lost from the sideline. Colombia made the changes that gave them an extra body in the attacking department in the shape of Villarreal's Carlos Bacca.

He eventually started to influence the game with Juan Quintero flagging and eventually replaced, joining James in a position of helplessness.

Southgate withdrew Dele Alli and sent in Eric Dier in an attempt to see it through. The Spurs player struggled to keep hold of the ball as England fell deeper, but those details would have faded into insignificance if they had managed to defend an injury-time corner.

For 15 minutes of extra-time, England still looked to be processing the disappointment. Kane was hobbling and others were simply flagging. The decision to rest legs against Belgium was in danger of leading a post mortem.

New rules allowing four changes in extra-time games offered a helping hand as Danny Rose and Marcus Rashford brought an injection of energy and the pendulum swung. Dier was sent to the sanctity of the back three as part of the reshuffle. He would be untroubled. From a point where England were carrying themselves like the side that wanted penalties, Colombia were on the defensive.

Jamie Vardy's pace pegged them back, and Rashford's arrival gave them something else to think about.

The red shirts had regained some of their earlier poise, having overcome the blip that could have undone all of their good work.

For once, penalties would function as their get-out-of-jail card.

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