England have successfully navigated their World Cup group but have now reached the point that has so often proved their instant undoing in the past – the knockout phase.
Gareth Southgate’s side face dangerous Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday.
So what are the key issues and questions as England’s World Cup campaign enters new territory?
Just how good are England?
This is a question that has yet to be answered – even though they are about to play in the last 16 of the World Cup.
Manager Southgate admitted England cannot be regarded as a top team until they beat top teams. And this remains the case after they lost what was effectively a ‘B’ international to Belgium in their final group game in Kaliningrad.
And the damning statistic that England have not won a knockout game at a major tournament since 2006 remains in the record books.
England put away Tunisia and Panama in their opening games but the opposition was sub-standard, so provided no accurate measure of the standing of Southgate’s team.
They have a world-class striker in Harry Kane and proven Premier League quality throughout the side – but they have yet to prove they can see off high-class, experienced opposition when it matters.
If they are to go deeper into the World Cup, they will have to offer the evidence to justify the optimism swirling around them, both at home and here in Russia.
England’s men who must deliver in Moscow
England have no margin for error in Moscow. Any mistakes against Colombia could end their World Cup hopes.
This means five of manager Southgate’s key figures must deliver with a place in the quarter-finals at stake.
Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had an uncertain night against Belgium in Kaliningrad with a performance that drew some criticism – but Southgate launched a staunch defence and insists he is undisputed first choice.
Pickford actually may have just have been ring rusty after being almost unemployed against Tunisia and Panama. Southgate will hope an occasionally difficult 90 minutes will have done him good.
John Stones must justify his status as England’s leader in their three-man defensive system. Kyle Walker is on unfamiliar territory in that set-up while Leicester City’s Harry Maguire is a relative rookie at this level. Much rests on Stones.
Jordan Henderson has been Southgate’s trusted midfield pivot, performing well in England’s two wins. His role as the foundation of England’s system will be even more crucial against better opposition, as he will be relied upon to protect a potentially vulnerable defence.
Raheem Sterling is an outstanding talent who gets great support from Southgate. As the World Cup reaches the business end, it is time for him to come to the party and end that dismal record of no goals in his past 22 England appearances.
And finally, most significantly, captain Harry Kane must continue to burnish his reputation as a striker of the highest class.
Kane is a striker who will make every defence in the World Cup anxious. He is England’s most important player.
Beware the threat from the Premier League flops?
Radamel Falcao was a world-class striker short on fitness and recovering from serious injury when he flopped in the Premier League during loan spells at Manchester United and Chelsea. He may now be 32 but he is back as one of the most dangerous operators at this World Cup.
England have already suffered at the hands of Adnan Januzaj, who failed to fulfil his early promise at Old Trafford, while Juan Cuadrado is an important part of Colombia’s attacking plans despite failing to flourish at Chelsea.
Falcao may well want to prove a point to England and show those Premier League observers who watched his struggles at Old Trafford and Chelsea exactly what they missed.
England have been warned.
Southgate’s World Cup window of opportunity
Southgate’s decision to make eight changes for England’s defeat by Belgium was a major talking point as countries start to plot a possible path to the final.
England finished second in Group G, meaning they had a last-16 game against Colombia, potentially more dangerous opponents than Japan.
It also meant that a victory would lead to arguably a less difficult quarter-final against Sweden or Switzerland, rather than Brazil or Mexico.
In this unpredictable World Cup, no permutation is a guarantee and Southgate is right to point out the irony of mapping a route to the semi-final, given that England have not won a knockout game for 12 years.
However, if you had bumped into Southgate before the World Cup and told him he would have to beat Colombia in the last 16, then Sweden or Switzerland in the quarter-final, he would surely have shaken your hand, signed up and moved on.
England have been presented with their best opportunity to reach a World Cup semi-final since they last reached one at Italia 90.
And it all goes back to that original question.
Are England good enough to take it?
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/44677173