England, for all the quality within their ranks, have been consistent underachievers on the international stage. Despite this though, there is a surge in belief across the country. The Three Lions are finally starting to justify their hype. Led by a manager in Gareth Southgate who is providing them opportunities to play freely, they have responded by becoming a collective unit.
The slender 1-0 defeat to Belgium merely proved the Low Country is steeped deeper in talent. It was a battle between reserves with both teams already through and more concerned with maintaining a healthy squad. A last-gasp winner over Tunisia and a record-breaking thrashing to send Panama home had already delivered both the goods and the thrills.
But how did they manage to get to the knockout rounds? Well they have captain Harry Kane to thank in large part. The 24-year-old Tottenham forward has netted five goals in two appearances. He is the immediate favourite for Golden Boot accolade this summer.
This could have been a completely different story had Kane replicated his performances from Euro 2016. Whisper it as you may, the Spurs man wilted under the pressure in France two years ago. Too many of his compatriots followed suit. A 2-1 defeat by minnows Iceland in the last-16 further compounded an underwhelming showing. It was important that Kane, of all players, started quickest in Russia.
With that in mind, the joy and euphoria after Kane headed home from close-range to snatch all three points at the death in England’s opening group stage fixture was more than understandable. The result was deserved given England’s dominance, although that’s a recurring issue that has hurt them in the past. Failure to make it count when on top has cost dearly.
Kane’s goal was uplifting for the whole nation, giving everyone a much-needed morale boost. Poor Panama stood no chance. A draw would have caused doubt to creep, questions to be asked and criticism to fill newspapers everywhere. Same old, same old? This group wasn’t interested in the status quo.
The quality within England’s backline, when compared with top nations, is still questionable. The group were untested prior to an unconvincing defeat at Belgium’s hand. It bears repeating Southgate rang eight changes. In hindsight, that might have been too many in transition for a tougher adversary.
Contrast to England teams gone by
England’s golden generation, as it were, underperformed significantly. Since that one and only World Cup triumph in 1966, England have only progressed beyond the quarter-finals once. They finished fourth after defeat on penalties to winners West Germany and a 2-1 loss to hosts Italy in 1990.
In 2014, they lost 2-1 twice, to Uruguay and the Italians. Then a goalless draw with Costa Rica sent them home before the knockout stage had even begun. Euro 2016 wasn’t much better. They finished runners-up in Group B to Wales in a group that also included Slovakia and Russia. Despite a seemingly easier route forward, they underestimated Iceland and paid the ultimate price. Will history repeat?
How far can they realistically go?
With everything taken into account, it’s difficult to say. Southgate has insisted that his players must breed a winning mentality and take each game as it comes. Suggestions that either England or Belgium would purposely lose to finish second appear misplaced even though neither fielded their strongest eleven.
England play Colombia in the last-16 on Tuesday. It will be an intriguing test in various ways. Los Cafeteros haven’t yet been at their best yet. They scraped through a difficult Group H. You’d expect things to be different once the threat of elimination is at stake, but the severity of James Rodriguez’s injury will be critical.
The winner faces either Sweden or Switzerland for a semi-final place. That in itself is an exciting prospect. Neither team would be fancied over a full-strength England side. There is reason for collective optimism.
Sweden take Germany’s place as a prospective opponent. If one forgets the Iceland debacle, that’s a happy development. Instead, it should remind how upsets are entirely possible in such a short tournament. Results are never foregone conclusions based on quality. England know that first-hand.
The semifinal is a very achievable target for this England crop to attain. From there, who knows what can happen? If fixtures elsewhere go as planned, they’ll meet Spain. La Roja have not been at their best, but have a range of world-class players who know how to win when it matters most. Then we might see how Southgate’s side react against tougher opposition.