In this World Cup England fear nobody, but nobody fears England

Gareth Southgate’s team are doing well, but should be careful about raising the bar

England manager Gareth Southgate: rival teams see no reason to be afraid of his side. photographs:  lee smith/reuters

England manager Gareth Southgate: rival teams see no reason to be afraid of his side. photographs: lee smith/reuters

 

One of the more remarkable statistics bandied about in the wake of England’s penalty shootout defeat of Colombia on Tuesday was the fact that only two of 14 sides to progress in that manner at World Cups since 1998 have survived the subsequent round.

England, needless to say, are not one of the two; their lamentable record record when it comes to spot kicks – they have gone out that way in five of the last eight tournaments in which they made the knockout stages – is one of the reasons the win in Moscow is being hailed as somewhat historic.

It was certainly encouraging from an England perspective, with Harry Kane continuing to vindicate his selection as captain by taking and scoring the first; a couple of those who followed showing impressive nerve; and Jordan Pickford’s save from Carlos Bacca effectively setting his side up for a 4-3 win – a couple of the previous ones were lost to one and two.

As the team heads towards the heat of Samara and Saturday’s quarter-final encounter with Sweden, however, Gareth Southgate and his side still face a significant issue: they, their media and the folks back home base their growing optimism on the sense there is not much in their half of the draw to fear. But the flipside is that none of their rivals see much reason to be afraid of England.

A significant part of the problem is the lack of any recent track record in major football tournaments. Winning the World Cup even once does lend a certain weight to a country’s national team, but the memory of that 1966 success is fading, even among those old enough to remember.

In the 52 years since, England have won just seven knockout games in either the World Cup or European Championship, and Tuesday’s was their first at a World Cup since 2006 when they beat Ecuador 1-0 in Stuttgart.

Before Tuesday, thumping a poor Panama was as much as the current crew had done to impress. Sure, they have not embarrassed themselves by going out in the group stages as the England teams of 2000 and 2014 did, or lost to “minnows”, as they did two years ago, but that’s about the size of it to date.

Kane, with six goals so far, looks a good bet for the Golden Boot, and seems certain to return home having further enhanced his reputation, but others have not reached that stage yet.

Southgate has a slightly mixed bag at his disposal, but a couple of the standout talents, Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling, have yet to really set a game alight here and if England were to lose at the weekend without them shining, they will suffer back home as others have before them.

On the face of it, they should beat Sweden then start as favourites against either Russia or Croatia, but every one of those sides will look at England’s history as a positive from their perspective, something that only ever seems to occur to the more self aware of the commentators, and then not very often.

Of their next opponents, only one, Victor Lindelöf, plays for what might be regarded as one of Europe’s very top level clubs (Manchester United), while Celtic’s Mikael Lustig, is one of only a couple of others to have played Champions League football last season – and he will miss the England game through suspension.

Among the side’s stalwarts are Marcus Berg, who at 31 plays in the UAE, and Andreas Granqvist and Seb Larsson, both 33, who have just signed for Helsingborgs and AIK respectively.

None of which is to take away from the team; on the contrary, in the absence of the nation’s one superstar, it has won plaudits for its spirit and commitment to a system intended to maximise its potential. It is still hard to completely shake the sense, though, that if Janne Andersson’s side was about to face one of the countries considered a real contender before the tournament began then deep down the Swedes might feel their road was run.

Instead, they appear every bit as convinced as their English counterparts that the departure of teams such as Spain and Germany has presented them with an unexpected opportunity.

Southgate and and his side clearly do not inspire the same sense of foreboding as Håkan Mild (the midfielder who featured for Sweden at USA’94 where the side finished third) clearly suggested when speaking on national radio.

“England have just played a long, tough game with extra-time and I also think they have hubris. It couldn’t be a better draw. They think they are so good. They are not.”

Mild might himself, be guilty of tempting fate but England have a good deal of reputational damage to repair before they start to inspire real fear. It is a young group and if their performance here only makes a start on that, it will have been a good summer for them. But they have not helped themselves by suddenly raising the bar on the basis of other teams failing here.

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