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World Cup 2018 – Southgate's Lions roar into the Quarter-Finals

Well that has to be one of the most difficult games we’ll ever see an England team face! Colombia’s players set out to disrupt any flow England could find by tripping, pushing, kicking and even headbutting England at every opportunity – this was a hostile environment, make no mistake. In recent years it would’ve rattled the team enough to make them react, to get inside their heads. But not this team, and not in this game.

World Cup - Round of 16 - Colombia vs England
Harry Kane falls to Colombia’s Barrios in a niggly, high-tempered, tit-for-tat game which resulted in 6 yellow cards for the South Americans | © Reuters

Instead England mostly dominated for all but the final 2 minutes of the 90; Harry Kane put away a deserved penalty after being wrestled to the ground by Carlos Sanchez in the 57th minute, and it wasn’t until the final 5 minutes really when Colombia finally went fully on the attack. The barrage paid off in heartbreaking fashion, when 2 minutes into injury time Yerry Mina rose highest to head into the ground from a corner and over Kieran Trippier’s head, to force the game into extra time.
The fans were heavily outnumbered in the stands, the players were psychologically fractured after being so close to victory and denied. If ever this young England team faced a test, this was surely it. Colombia continued to press all through the half-hour of extra time and frankly, it was a relief to hear the whistle at the end of 120 minutes.
England hadn’t won a shootout since Euro 96, and all England fans feared penalties. Not these players, and not in this game.
Despite Jordan Henderson missing his penalty, all others were put away with calmness and composure including the decisive spot-kick from an ice-cool Eric Dier. England were through deservedly, triumphantly, euphorically. And wow, it didn’t half feel good!

Sorry Gareth, I was wrong

In my last post, I criticised Gareth Southgate for making huge changes for the game against Belgium, which ended in defeat. I argued that momentum could be disrupted, the pressure would now increase massively, and that Colombia would be fired up to knock cocky England out of the World Cup.
For the most part I was right, but it didn’t matter; England rose to the challenge, shrugged off the pressure, and saw off a dangerous Colombia side on penalties in a fantastic display of maturity.
Yes, it did pile more pressure on the team going into this game. But Southgate knew these players could handle it.
Yes, Colombia were fired up and playing with an aggression designed to provoke and unsettle England. But again, these players could absolutely deal with it.
As for momentum; I have never seen an England team more tactically prepared for a game as they were here. Gareth Southgate got the set-up spot-on, and the team’s philosophy of playing out from the back was religiously stuck to. I underestimated the mental strength and tactical intelligence of these young stars, and I’ve never been happier to be proved wrong.

A rugged and composed display under huge pressure

World Cup - Round of 16 - Colombia vs England
Carlos Bacca receives a yellow card – one of many on the night – from American referee Mike Geiger after a foul on England’s John Stones | © Reuters

The test these players faced was obvious from very early on, as the Colombian’s somehow managed to out-thug the Panamanians with dirty play. Every set piece was countered with several wrestling matches in the box, and Jordan Henderson at one point received a headbutt from Wilmar Barrios – which was inexplicably only given a yellow card. England’s penalty was the result of a grapple on Harry Kane from a corner, and there were so many fouls that referee Mike Geiger was close to losing control. It’s a miracle nobody was sent off.
It reminded me a bit of France 98 at the same knockout stage, as a young and promising England side held their own superbly against a streetwise Argentina team intent on roughing them up. The difference that night was David Beckham succumbing to those dirty tricks and infamously lashing out at Diego Simeone. Thankfully, this England team held their composure brilliantly in the face of provocation, and even gave it back a bit at times. If Colombia’s only hope was aggression, it wasn’t working.

Tactically superb, if technically limited

My big surprise was how well the players stuck to the game plan even against the backdrop of Colombian shithousery. Southgate favours a back 3 of defenders, playing the ball out into midfield and between each other rather than playing it long. The way John Stones, Kyle Walker and particularly Harry Maguire passed their way into midfield was incredible to watch. Was this really an England defense we were watching?! Even Jordan Pickford’s mobility with the ball at his feet helped the cause, and only added to Colombian frustration because they couldn’t get the ball off England for long spells.
Harry Kane was immense leading the line, and is clearly the best player in this team. His hold-up play was the best I’ve seen it, and the way he drew the Colombian defenders into fouls spoke of a growing experience and know-how at this level. He was never rattled – psychologically if not physically – and never let any level of provocation affect him, even at its worst when being made to wait to take his penalty in the 2nd half. Ice cool, and England’s rightful leader.
My only concern was in midfield; Henderson was fairly anonymous, Jesse Lingard was too often drawn into confrontation, and Dele Alli created practically nothing all game. The lack of creativity should be cause for concern for Southgate; the fact that half of Kane’s goals have been penalties, as well as two set pieces and a deflection, tells its own story.

A huge monkey off a nation’s back

World Cup - Round of 16 - Colombia vs England
Jordan Pickford stretches out an arm to stop Carlos Bacca’s penalty, and set up Eric Dier to score the winner in the shoot-out | © Reuters

It’s going to take a while to take in the fact that England have won a penalty shoot-out in a major tournament, such is the regularity with which they lose. But what a feeling of joy this gave the team and the nation! It felt all the better because of the wait for this to happen.
The positivity this will breed among these young stars bodes brilliantly for the game with Sweden. If any momentum was lost from the Belgium defeat, England have massively over-compensated for it with the manner of this victory!
In my last post, I questioned whether this team was really any good. I think they answered emphatically against Colombia and the best part is; we haven’t even seen the best of this team yet, only glimpses of skill and bags of heart.
With the wind in their sails and belief in their abilities in abundance, anything is possible now for Southgate’s young lions.

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© Mike Barclay at The Football Diary 2020