LONDON – England have their best chance in decades to lift the World Cup, having fallen short in the semi-finals in 1990, and the nation’s media are getting into a frenzy.
Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli gave Gareth Southgate’s side a deserved 2-0 last-eight win over Sweden on Saturday, and they must now prepare to take on Croatia on Wednesday for a spot in the World Cup final.
“Semi Gods,” the Sunday Mirror declared with a picture of English players celebrating Maguire’s thumping header to opening the scoring, while the Sunday People’s headline urged the fans and the squad to “Keep calm and Harry on”.
The Observer said a nation hungry for joy has finally found its new heroes. The Sunday Express said a quietly confident nation has started to believe that football could really be “coming home”, as England’s 1996 soccer anthem goes.
The last time England reached the semis was in 1990 in Italy, when they lost out to Germany in a penalty shootout. But the country’s media believe things could be different with the confident unit led by captain Harry Kane, the top scorer in the tournament so far.
David Baddiel - who co-wrote the anthem ‘Three Lions’ for the Euro 96 tournament - told the Sunday Times that the current squad has shrugged off the suffocating burdens of history and could lift the trophy for the first time since 1966.
“I am daring to hope because I think this is a team marked by joy and newness and youth and Gareth Southgate’s deep emotional intelligence,” said Baddiel, whose iconic song has made its way back up the music charts this week.
Former England international Gary Neville, who was assistant to Roy Hodgson when they were knocked out by Iceland in last-16 at Euro 2016, felt the current pool of players have shown great maturity throughout the tournament.
“I have to say over the last 25 years of England, when we’re winning we usually drop deep and protect, and when we’re losing we get desperate,” Neville told ITV.
“This team, with every performance I’ve seen in this tournament, it has been controlled and composed.”
* Croatia became only the second team to win successive penalty shootouts at the World Cup, following in the footsteps of Argentina in 1990, when they overcame Russia 4-3 on Saturday to follow up their win over Denmark in the previous round.
Neither of those overall performances, however, were worthy of potential World Cup winners, nor did they seem to do justice to the quality of Croatia’s line-up, which is one of the most gifted in Russia.
Fourteen members of their squad are based in Europe’s top five leagues - England, Spain, Italy, Germany and France - including Luka Modric and Mateo Kovacic at Real Madrid, Ivan Rakitic at Barcelona and Mario Mandzukic at Juventus.
When Croatia stormed through the group stage with nine points from three games, they did indeed look like serious contenders.
But the spark seems to have gone in knockout stages and instead they have had to rely on more on resilience to get them through against less gifted opponents.
Coach Zlatko Dalic certainly showed plenty of bold, attacking intentions against Russia.
The gifted Modric and Rakitic were fielded in the centre of midfield, with no defensive cover, and there were two wingers in Ante Rebic and Ivan Perisic and two centre forwards in Manduzkic and Andrej Kramaric. But it did not quite work out as planned.
Croatia’s long periods of possession were largely unproductive, the final pass was invariably missing and they were surprised by Russia’s aggressive approach.
“We were undermanned in midfield,” said Dalic. “We were left to only hit long balls. That’s not how Croatia play. That’s not our style.”
Going to extra-time and penalties meant using up valuable reserves of energy that could potentially put them at a disadvantage in their semi-final on Wednesday.
“There were times when we lacked energy: 240 minutes of football in six days takes its toll on you,” said Modric who, like Mandzukic and Rakitic, is into his thirties.
Dalic, however, said there was plenty left in the tank.
“Of course there is some power left for the English - we will not stop, we will try to play our best game then,” he said. “We have two matches to play, we are very motivated, we will give our all.”
And, if all else fails, Croatia can always go into a penalty shootout confident they will come out as winners.
“The match against Russia is yet another victory of our character. We have nerves of steel,” said Kramaric. “Perhaps the match was not the most beautiful, but it will be remembered.”Reuters