Let’s go back to those pre-tournament wallcharts.
For the quarter-finals, I’ve got Uruguay v France but then it goes very wrong. Okay, Brazil and Belgium are in my final eight but I eliminated Russia and Sweden at the group stage.
It says here in black pen that England are playing Germany in Samara on Saturday, July 7 at 3pm.
Right stadium. Right kick-off time. Wrong opponent. How glad I am to be wrong.
By definition, if Germany had made it to the last eight as usual, they’d be opponents England would not want to meet. They’d have a head of steam and feel almost a divine right that they’d cruise past us and take their rightful place in the semis.
And why wouldn’t they. Last time we played them in a World Cup knockout match. England 1 Germany 4.
Instead we have Sweden and our expectations are upgraded from “probably lose” to “should win”.
With that door teasingly wide open (England are just 2/5 to qualify), we can also see what lies ahead. Not formidable opponents such as Brazil or France but very beatable hosts Russia or a Croatia side which needed penalties to beat Denmark.
So if anyone accuses you of getting ahead of yourself for hastily rescheduling plans for next Sunday’s final, respond firmly with a “why the heck not!”
The stats will tell you that England usually make a bit of a mess of playing Sweden. Rather like assembling an IKEA flatpack, it looks a straightforward enough task but ends up driving you bloody mad.
Last 10 meetings – five draws, three wins for the Swedes and just two wins for England. In World Cups – 1-1 in 2002 and 2-2 in 2006. England led both games but were pegged back and had to settle for draws.
However, if we’re pinning everything on history, England should already be flying home. History said they always lost penalty shootouts. History said when Jordan Henderson missed his spot-kick, that was stage one of our latest disaster and stage two, another botched attempt, would finish us off.
But this is where Gareth Southgate’s meticulous preparation and obsession with marginal gains really kicked in. Jordan Pickford knew where four of the five Colombia penalties were going and our takers turned into grooved machines, the hours and hours of practice allowing technique to overcome emotion.
What utter nonsense from past England coaches who believed that practising penalties was futile as you could never replicate match conditions. This was a triumph for detail and an absolutely ringing endorsement of what Southgate has brought to these young and hungry Three Lions.
And yet….. despite the optimism sweeping over me in continuous waves, I have reservations about Saturday that just won’t go away.
The Swedes are organised, well-drilled and a bit too cool and composed for all the stupid antics in the box which keep gifting Harry Kane penalties.
England are finding it very hard to score from open play in this World Cup and if Sweden negate our set-pieces, this could be a very low-scoring affair.
The 0-0 would not surprise me at all; 1-1 neither.
And, if that’s the case, and extra-time is simply a war of attrition that neither side can win, we’re back to those pesky penalties again.
The problem that’s nagging me is that in post-match interviews, England’s players kept telling anyone listening (i.e. the whole world, including the Swedish management team) that they took the spot-kicks that they’d been practising for months.
Is this an elaborate double bluff or does the Swedish goalkeeper now know that if he dives to his right, he’ll have a sporting chance of saving the spot-kicks from Kane, Rashford, Trippier and Dier and to his left if he wants to keep out Henderson?
Have those takers practised a second style of penalty? Or are they that good at the originals that Swedish stopper Robin Olsen will have no chance anyway?
And here was I thinking that Tuesday night’s penalty shootout success had exorcised me of the long-standing demons when England step up to take spot-kicks. Somehow, it’s made it worse!
There’s a way to put a stop to all this though.
If England score just one goal, they run the risk of a 1-1 draw and extended drama. But score twice and I don’t think the Swedes have enough firepower to save themselves. Two more goals please Harry and all will be just fine.
The semi-finals beckon. Let this fantastic journey continue.