Steady England scale a tricky hurdle with aplomb

Southgate’s side already in bonus territory as semi-final clash with Croatia looms large

England’s Dele Alli scores his side’s second goal during the 2-0 victory over Sweden in the World Cup quarter-final in Samara. Photograph: Felipe Trueba/EPA

England 2 Sweden 0

The increasingly excited/anxious debate about this England side's progress through the World Cup can be broadly summed up in a couple of footballisms.

On the one side, we have the people who subscribe to the that favourite one-liner of a manager whose team has been handed a hard draw in a cup competition and goes something like: “Look, you’ve got to beat the best teams if you want to get your hands on the trophy.”

On the other, there is the standard defence of modest wins over middling opponents which goes: “You can only beat what’s put in front of you.”


England, the sceptics suggest, have yet to defeat a team of real stature and so have still not proven that they have the quality required to complete an already unexpected success story. But, the believers reply, they have delivered every time it has mattered and can hardly be held to account for the shortcomings of their opponents.

There's a bit of both about the situation, of course, but the fact is that on this, the 18th occasions they have entered the competition, they are in a World Cup semi-final for only the third time.

Croatia, should, on the face of it, present more of a challenge on Moscow on Wednesday – despite their exertions there on Saturday night – with either France or Belgium likely to start the final as favourites to beat whichever one of those progresses.

Still, England did a least enough in this rather pedestrian win over Sweden in Samara to suggest they will be nobody's pushovers.

Man for man, Gareth Southgate’s always looked the better of the two sides and there was a sense about the Swedes on the day that they were either tired or lacked a little of the hunger required to really put it up to their opponents.

England, though, have something of a history of engineering problems for themselves at key moments in championships and still might easily have made harder work of winning. Instead, they looked confident and composed with Harry Maguire’s first goal for his country 31 minutes in and Dele Alli’s first of the tournament after 59, enough to secure a comfortable victory.

Jordan Pickford was again hailed as a bit of a hero afterwards thanks to the three second half saves, two of them from Marcus Berg, he made and the best of them, low to his left and at full stretch to stop a header by the 31 year-old striker reaching the target just three minutes after the break, may well have been pivotal for a goal would have put Sweden back level and perhaps energised a side that was looking a little sluggish in attack.

Higher tempo

They certainly must have realised that they need to produce football of a higher tempo if they were to seriously test an England defence that is stood up well to physical and aerial challenge that the Swedes presented.

A couple of the back three are pretty experienced at this level, but for Maguire, though just a year younger than John Stones, this was only cap number 10, and he really did look impressive as Gareth Southgate readily acknowledged afterwards.

“His first game [for England], he talked about just being desperate not to make a mistake,” the manager recalled. “I remember saying to him before the next game ‘Okay, how about now we try and be as good as we might be?’ because I think he’s a super-talented player.

“When I was watching him during the season, I was so keen that he stayed fit because this was a stage that I was certain he could show he could play at. I’m not sure he’s always believed that.

“His use of the ball is as good as any centre-back in the tournament, he has been a giant in both boxes, getting his bonce on everything. Hopefully he’s gaining belief from the performances at this level.”

Alli, like like the Leicester City defender, is likely to benefit from his goal, a far more straightforward header after the Tottenham midfielder was left unmarked at the far post but Jordan Henderson was rather more influential in the wider game, picking up a lot of possession in the central area and generally using it smartly to get England going.

In front of him, Harry Kane had a quiet day with a sweeping low drive that went a yard wide in the first half of it but Raheem Sterling, who did most of the work required to set up that chance, experienced another frustrating one.

The Manchester City star was probably England’s most exciting player over the first 40 minutes; lively and inventive in the final third of the pitch and a persistent threat to a defence that had only conceded twice – both against Germany – up until this point in the tournament.

What his day will probably be remembered for, however, is his failure to get the ball in the net on either of the two occasions he was put through one on one with goalkeeper Robin Olsen.

The Swede did well each time although first was belatedly ruled offside anyway and the second required Andreas Granqvist to block Sterling's follow up shot. Still, a goal either time to get the striker off the World Cup mark and this might have been regarded as an almost a perfect afternoon's work.

Even without one, it was not by any means a bad one. England came away without any obvious injuries and with Kyle Walker, Jesse Lingard and Henderson avoiding cards, Southgate should be in a position to start the same side for a third successive game if he wants to.

Either way, England, have already exceeded expectations and, having secured another week for themselves in Russia as Southgate suggested, have it in their own hands, "which two games we play".

Their prospects over the coming week might be summarised by another another couple of footballisms: “Taking it all, one game at a time.” Then, if things go well on Wednesday: “Anything can happen in 90 minutes.”

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone

Emmet Malone is Work Correspondent at The Irish Times