England’s players and their manager have an opportunity to achieve sporting immortality on Wednesday as they aim to reach the 2018 World Cup final.
The Three Lions are just one game away from their first final since 1966, with Croatia standing between them and a showpiece against France, who beat Belgium on Tuesday.
The names of Sir Alf Ramsey and his players – still the only 11 Englishmen to play in a World Cup final – will be recalled forever and their stories told whenever the nation’s landmark moments in sport are revisited.
This is the level of prize and prestige on offer in Moscow for a team given little hope of progressing past the quarter-finals before the tournament began.
It is England’s most significant World Cup game since the semi-final loss to West Germany on penalties at Italia ’90 – with the prospect of matching that famous occasion from 52 years ago if they win.
And it is even more remarkable when placed in the context of the shambles of Euro 2016, when England were deservedly humbled in the last 16 by underdogs Iceland.
When Gareth Southgate took charge of England amid the chaos and confusion of Roy Hodgson’s resignation after the embarrassment in France and Sam Allardyce’s one-game reign, the notion of him potentially putting his name alongside the great Ramsey would have been regarded as plucked from the realms of fantasy.
Ramsey, reserved but tactically brilliant, took the job after winning the title at Ipswich Town. Southgate’s only venture into club management ended in the sack at Middlesbrough.
But he has rebuilt his reputation within the Football Association’s framework with such success he now has the chance to make history.
And there are certain things about Southgate that the legendary Ramsey might just have admired, namely his fierce loyalty to his players – Raheem Sterling and Dele Alli are prime examples – and the loyalty he is given in return.
It has all come together brilliantly in a campaign that has gathered momentum as it moved around Russia.
Now England’s manager and his players can earn the chance to make themselves immortals.
Southgate word perfect in Moscow
If Southgate was feeling the weight of history on his shoulders in Moscow on Tuesday, it was a burden he carried so lightly it was barely detectable.
His relaxed demeanour, quiet determination and sense of humour have won England friends on their travels in Russia – and for a man carrying the hopes of a nation and speaking on the night before the biggest moment of his career, he cut a remarkably calm figure.
Sitting alongside midfielder Jordan Henderson in a packed media centre, the attendance a reflection of this game’s significance, Southgate was once again pitch perfect.
Plastic chickens at training. Waistcoat Wednesday. Football’s Coming Home. And the World Cup semi-final.
The lighter subjects were handled with humour and the deadly serious matters treated with gravitas.
If Southgate’s team have grown and matured in this momentous month in Russia, then so has their manager.
England’s “identity” has not simply been a buzzword. It has become a byword, both in the style of play Southgate demands and the manner in which his players have conducted themselves.
Southgate would not be human if he was not feeling a modicum of tension about such an occasion – but he spoke with confidence and belief about what England have achieved and can achieve.
Whatever unfolds in Moscow on Wednesday, the manager’s reputation inside and outside the global game has been enhanced.
England must prepare for battle
Croatia coach Zlatko Dalic was the model of defiance and confidence as he and Liverpool defender Dejan Lovren faced the media after Southgate.
This is a proud nation and a proud football team, and to reach a World Cup final would represent a truly remarkable story.
England will be made to fight all the way in the face of Croatian passion on and off the field, but Lovren was not short of reminders of his harrowing experience against Three Lions captain Harry Kane when Spurs beat Liverpool 4-1 at Wembley last October.
Lovren cut a humiliated figure when he was substituted after only 31 minutes – but rebuilt his season to the extent he was first-choice alongside £75m signing Virgil van Dijk.
England will hope Kane can rekindle those ghosts and haunt Lovren again. Kane will have memories as well as Lovren.
Henderson refused, understandably, to reveal England’s game plan but much will centre on subduing the brilliant Luka Modric, who got the better of Liverpool’s captain in Real Madrid’s Champions League final win in Kiev in May.
If England can find a way to subdue Modric and Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic they will take a large step towards the final.
Fail and it will be fatal for their ambitions in Russia.
The stage was set at this magnificent football theatre on Tuesday. The fates of Croatia and England will be decided on Wednesday.
History and immortality await if Southgate and England can reach out and grab them.
Article source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/44786098