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England await big team challenge as they head for World Cup semi-final
Judgement of England’s progress to the World Cup semi-finals will forever be qualified. They didn’t have to face a "big team" to reach the last four, so the barb goes.
“If there are teams that are knocking out the likes of Spain and Germany, then they have to be respected,” said England coach Gareth Southgate before his side’s last 16 match against Colombia.
Sweden, dispatched 2-0 in the quarter-final in Samara on Saturday, emerged from a group containing defending champions Germany, Mexico and South Korea. Janne Andersson’s men are, in his own words, easy to analyse, difficult to play.
In the aftermath of victory, Southgate concurred.
“Sweden break the game up and the game doesn’t flow as much," he commented. "We had to adapt and to work with and without the ball and I think we were brave enough to play and open them up at times and should have had a couple more. But equally we owe a lot to our goalkeeper, who made a couple of crucial saves at big moments.”
Pickford man of the match
The first of those Jordan Pickford interventions came just after half-time when England were leading 1-0. Pickford got down low to his left to repel a Marcus Berg header. Following Dele Alli’s second for England, Pickford saved twice more to prevent his team from a nervous close to the encounter.
The 24-year-old was rewarded with the man-of-the-match trophy.
“I just work hard in training,” he said. “All the saves I make in training are to showcase on the day of a match. I’ve had a good season and I’m happy and this is what football is all about - being on the big stage.”
He added: “Nothing fazes me, the pitch is always going to be the same. Same lines, same goal height, it’s just a game of football.”
Would it were so simple. This is England. This is 28 years since the last appearance in the semi-final of a World Cup.
Pickford’s next look at the lines will be at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow on Wednesday night, where England will face Croatia.
For a side which announced its potency to the tournament with a 3-0 destruction of Argentina in the group stages just over two weeks ago, Croatia have struggled.
They ousted Denmark via penalties and could not subdue a rumbustious Russia side until the shootout. Barcelona midfielder Ivan Rakitic slotted home the decisive kick, just as he did against Denmark, to end the hosts’ contribution to their own party.
Hardly the flamboyance of a big team. England’s men are likely to hear a familiar lament should they advance in Moscow.