A couple of days have passed since we made it to a World Cup Quarter Final for the first time since Italia 1990. Like all English fans, I’m lively with excitement. Tuesday’s tense affair with Colombia at the Otkritie Arena in Moscow was fiery and far from a bastion of sportsmanship. It was tense, dirty and filled with all of the dark arts that have been cultivated by competitors over the years.
It is for that reason I am most proud of Gareth Southgate and his team. I’m not saying our conduct was perfect, but it was professional, especially for the third youngest set of players at the tournament.
For years, this is the type of game we would have squandered, whilst screaming misjustice at the actions of our opponents. However, we held our nerve and displayed the highest level of mental strength I have witnessed from an England team. Hopefully this becomes a defining moment for our national team and we no longer fall victim to mental fragility during the pressure moments of international football.
Despite a strong mental performance, the technical aspect of our play needs improvement if we are to get to this year’s final. Despite registering 16 shots we only managed two on target. We need more poise and ambition in the final third with our key passes, but with a half-fit Dele Alli and a Raheem Sterling who can’t seem to find his Manchester City cutting edge, I’m concerned our lack of threat from open play will continue.
The game started at an average pace. Our first effort on target came on 6′ with a free kick from the ever-reliable Ashley Young parried by Arsenal goalkeeper David Ospina.
On 14′ Sterling showed a glimpse of his quality rolling Colombia defender Yerry Mina to win a free kick. He then had a shot blocked from 20 yards following a mistake by Wilmar Barrios (we’ll get to him). At that point, I was hopeful Sterling would warm into the game, but he never found that spark that continues to allude him. Maybe he’s saving it for the final.
Our first real chance from open play came on 17′ after good work from Jesse Lingard released Kieran Trippier down the right. His cross was met by an outstretched Harry Kane who lofted his header over the bar. Despite being a spurs player, I can’t hate the boy from Bury who has cemented his reputation as a top class right back/wing back with his performances at this World Cup.
Despite a positive first 20 minutes, the game started to tighten with the formations cancelling each other out. This would set the tone for the rest of the game which would become less and less about guile and more about attrition. By the 30thminute Colombia had committed six fouls and were doing a good job at disrupting the flow of the game. Although they lacked fluidity in their attack, Radamel Falcao’s sharp movement and Juan Cuadrado’s trickery were giving our team food for thought and helping to inhibit our attacking ambitions.
The game’s major moment of controversy came on 40′ when Barrios headbutted Jordan Henderson whilst lining up in a wall to defend against an England free-kick. American referee Mark Geiger confusingly decided to issue a yellow card, despite input from VAR. For me this was a clear use of the head to harm an opponent and should have been a straight red card. However, what’s important is how you respond, and I felt the England team did well to maintain control of their emotions despite the injustice of the decision.
Half time: Colombia 0 – 0 England
The start of the second half brought much of the same, with set-pieces looking more and more like our only goal threat. Tussling in the box was a key feature in this game, but on 54′ Kane cleverly rolled Carlos Sanchez who bundled the England Captain to ground. Mark Geiger correctly awarded the penalty.
The bedlam that ensued in the next four minutes before Kane was allowed to take his penalty was embarrassing. The Colombia players hounded Mark Geiger, the English players unnecessarily got involved, while Colombian left back Johan Mijaca, scuffed the penalty spot (a murky trick designed to loosen the ground under a penalty taker standing foot). Football needs to deal with these theatrics and quick.
Despite the chaos, the ice-cool Kane smashed home his sixth goal of the tournament typifying the resilience and mental strength of this England team.
Colombia 0 – 1 England
At this point, I knew we would need a second goal to kill this game off. The bedlam that ensued after the penalty was awarded, often creates chaos in a game and lowers the quality level of both teams. At that point, a team with the lead becomes vulnerable to conceding a soft goal.
That chance to kill the game came on 65′ when Alli headed over the bar from four yards after good work from Trippier. A fit and sharp Alli would have buried that but he appears to be laboring though some fitness issues. Similarly, to Sterling, I hope he’s saving his moment for the final.
More chaos immediately followed when the Colombian players, incensed by Harry Maguire’s dive in the penalty box, cornered the referee. They were right to be aggrieved as it was a clear dive from a player expecting contact. The elusive second goal evaded us, and the chaos factor increased.
Another shout for a penalty came on 78′ when Lingard went down in the box under close supervision of Davinson Sanchez. Despite the Colombian going to ground recklessly, I didn’t feel there was sufficient contact on Lingard to warrant a penalty. There was also no way Mark Geiger was giving that. Could you imagine the melt down it would have triggered?
On 79 Mexico brought on Matias Uribe for Carlos Sanchez. The midfielder who plays his club football in Mexico brought more control to the Colombian midfield who were starting to look like the most likely.
On 81 Southgate made a defender’s substitution bringing on Eric Dier for Alli. Smart move, but defensive subs like that with a 1-0 lead are dangerous in tournament football.
On 89’ five minutes of injury time were flagged by the fourth official. Then on 90+2‘, my heart sank as the bright Uribe fired a shot akin to Thor throwing his hammer, only to be halted by Jordan “Hela” Pickford who shoved Thibaut Courtois’ criticism down his throat.
What a save!
Barcelona’s Mina then rose to head home the consequent corner sending the game into extra time. With Colombia in the ascendancy and England starting to look leggy, I wasn’t looking forward to extra time. However, with eight of our last 15 World Cup knockout games going to extra-time, I should have expected it.
Full time: Colombia 1 – 1 England
A tense period of extra time delivered much of what we had seen in the middle third of the 90 minutes. Two teams gently probing, with a lack of attacking guile. Kane was doing a great job of relieving pressure, winning a number of free kicks in Colombia’s half, but the game started to look more and more like it was heading to penalties. Our key chance came on 117′ when Dier should have scored from an innocuous corner but somehow, he headed over. This is a chance he would bury nine times out of ten.
AET: Colombia 1 – 1 England
Then the unthinkable occurred. We scored more penalties than the opposition in a knock out tournament after Uribe, who’s shot led to Colombia’s equaliser hit the cross bar and Jordan Pickford athletically parried Carlos Bacca’s pressure penalty. So, despite a miss from Henderson, conversions from Kane, Marcus Rashford, Trippier and Dier were enough to see us over the line.
What a result!!
Well done to Kane, Rashford, Henderson, Trippier and Dier for stepping up and doing your country proud.
Full time AET: England win 4 – 3 on penalties
Man of the match: Jordan Pickford
For the first time we have an England team with no ego or celebrities. It’s a team of equality prepared by the bold, modest and meticulous Southgate. I always thought we had a chance with Harry Kane, but I’m now realising our chance is purely down to the whole being greater that the sum of its parts. Southgate now needs to set the team up for beating a France or Belgium, not just Sweden.
I will follow up with more on Arsenal transfer business over the next week, but welcome Sokratis and Leno!