England stand just one game away from their first World Cup final since 1966 after clearing another obstacle on the road to history by beating Sweden in the quarter-final.
Gareth Southgate’s improving team handled the pressure of attempting to reach their first semi-final in 28 years and the growing hysteria at home to advance in routine fashion in Samara.
After the stress of the nerve-shredding win on penalties against Colombia, the victory over Sweden to set up a semi-final meeting with Croatia almost qualified as a cruise.
“It is not really supposed to be as comfortable as this with England is it?” said Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker, a key member of the last England team to reach the semi-finals, at Italia 90.
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Another major step in a World Cup defying logic
If England and their fans, who stayed behind for an hour after the conclusion here and were rewarded with an appearance from Southgate and an autograph-signing session from captain Harry Kane, cannot dare to dream now, when can they?
England have manoeuvred their way through Russia, killing off curses on their travels.
The win against Tunisia was their first in an opening game at a major tournament since Paraguay were beaten at the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
The last-16 victory against Colombia was not only their first knockout win since 2002 but also their first penalty shootout win at a World Cup.
Grim statistics that had piled up around England like rubble have been slowly cleared away by Southgate and his players in what is turning into a landmark World Cup.
The reality states that England still have the air of underdogs, and reality suggests the World Cup winners will come from the other side of the draw and the semi-final between Belgium and France – two teams containing a collection of world-class players.
This World Cup, however, has not dealt in reality, as we saw when holders Germany fell at the group stage.
England and their supporters have suffered enough agonies at major tournaments – indeed downright embarrassment in the last World Cup in Brazil four years ago and at Euro 2016 – to allow themselves to dream.
The dream now moves to Moscow.
The Southgate factor
Gareth Southgate has known the game’s harder edge, so few will begrudge him the praise and adulation falling on his shoulders now.
The 47-year-old carried the burden of missing a crucial penalty in the Euro 96 semi-final penalty shootout against Germany and also saw his first venture into management, when he was thrown into the task prematurely, end with the sack at Middlesbrough.
England and the Football Association are now the beneficiaries of all of those experiences, not just from his playing career but also the knowledge he picked up working under international managers such as Terry Venables.
Southgate took on the job with England at their lowest ebb following Roy Hodgson’s resignation after Euro 2016 and Sam Allardyce’s ill-fated one-match reign. Two years later they can make history.
He has brought maturity, measure and meticulous preparation to his task and has helped England’s followers to feel genuine affection for him and his players.
Southgate is also a product of the FA system, meaning he has worked with the likes of goalkeeper Jordan Pickford and Harry Kane in the Under-21 team.
The manager has been rightly acknowledged as a decent, dignified frontman for England. He has even been self-effacing about the “Gareth Southgate Would” Twitter craze, reflecting his basic decency and his sudden status as a fashion icon thanks to his trademark blue waistcoat.
Southgate, however, is much more than that.
England’s players respect him as a person and manager, a key starting point, but he has also added vital elements to the mix.
He has brought attention to detail, from the notes on Pickford’s drinks bottle at the shootout against Colombia to the relentless work on set-pieces that have been England’s most potent weapon here in Russia.
Southgate is also loyal and retains faith in his players. Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling have had their struggles in Russia but Southgate has stuck with them, giving strong public backing when needed.
And his cool demeanour, with a steely edge underneath, has allowed England’s players the freedom they required to shrug off the shackles that have weighed them down at previous tournaments.
Southgate will return from this World Cup with his reputation greatly enhanced – and perhaps with even greater glory against his name.
England’s surge in self-belief
England’s management and players have had a relaxed, quiet confidence ever since they landed in Russia almost a month ago.
Southgate’s men were accompanied by realistic expectations in which an exit at the quarter-final stage (most predictions suggested his would be against holders Germany or Brazil) would mean a return home with respectability.
Those two superpowers must now watch from afar as England contest the World Cup semi-final.
Slowly but surely, England have gathered belief and momentum, two priceless commodities, as they move around this vast country, to the point where they will go to Moscow on Wednesday with confidence bolstered by a professional performance that accounted for dogged Sweden.
England’s belief will also grow from the fact their talisman and captain Kane was on the margins against the Swedes. It could emerge as a key moment – when Kane was quiet, others stepped up.
Harry Maguire, outstanding in England’s last two games, was on the scoresheet, which he has threatened throughout the World Cup, while Alli’s confidence will be lifted by his goal.
And there are even more ingredients that have given England a powerful mix.
The defenders know they have an outstanding goalkeeper behind them in Pickford, who was magnificent in Samara.
Liverpool captain Jordan Henderson has been an understated but outstanding contributor, as has John Stones.
England also have the vital ingredients of team spirit and unity, plus a lack of ego, that help them dig deep when the going gets tough – a “band of brothers” mentality, as Kane called it.
The heat will be on like never before in Moscow as they know they are one game from a World Cup final.
England’s growing belief, their increased maturity through the tournament, and the confidence they will gain from results like this will all be powerful tools in the hothouse atmosphere of Luzhniki Stadium.
Stay in the bubble and out of the hysteria
As growing hysteria grips their followers at home, England can retreat behind the wooden gates of their peaceful retreat on the Gulf of Finland in Repino.
Nothing could be further removed from the fervour of home and the buzz of the World Cup than the mild, coastal climes and secluded base off a small tree-lined road 45 minutes from St Petersburg.
It has proved to be the perfect location for England – and will be ideal as a shield from the frenzy that is beginning to whip up around Southgate and his players.
England will get back to work at their neatly-appointed training base at Zelenogorsk, which could not be a greater contrast to the bustle of Moscow. There, they can work but also relax and get mind and body back in order for Wednesday.
Southgate will ensure his players remain in the bubble that has served them so well as they prepare for the biggest game of their lives.
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/44754156