November 15, 2018, 11:10

World Cup draw presents England with huge opportunity

World Cup draw presents England with huge opportunity

Forget the golden generation, England’s new generation have a golden opportunity at this World Cup, writes Peter Smith.

The penalty shootout victory over Colombia has unburdened them from the shackles of the past – and now a path is opening up to the World Cup final which Gareth Southgate and his squad could only have dreamed of before the tournament.

England beat Colombia on penalties

While no knockout match at the World Cup should be underestimated – and England’s recent history with Sweden is proof Saturday’s quarter-final will be no walkover – this group have been presented with a once-in-a-lifetime fixture list.

West Germany, Argentina, West Germany again, Argentina again, Brazil, Portugal, Germany. England’s previous conquerors in World Cup knockout ties is a list of football’s powerhouses.

This time around only Sweden and one of Russia or Croatia stand in their way of a place in the final.

Whatever view you took on the final Group G game against Belgium, falling into this half of the draw has presented this England side with a wonderful chance to eclipse their more celebrated predecessors.

It is surely too good a chance to let slip past.

Sweden scouting report

Southgate and his young England squad – the third youngest at the tournament – flew to Russia with expectations low.

After the failure in Brazil four years ago and the embarrassment of losing to Iceland at Euro 2016, the team’s supporters had accepted this was a learning experience for a refreshed squad and preparation for more serious tilts to come.

Well, the expectation has ramped up now.

Before this tournament, a valiant quarter-final defeat was deemed a satisfactory goal. Not anymore. How could it when it is not Brazil waiting in the last eight, as was predicted, but a Sweden side ranked below Iceland and Croatia?

An exit at this point, after all the team and their supporters went through in that brutal battle with Colombia, would now be a major disappointment. England have to back up their brilliant efforts of Tuesday night.

England’s penalty history

But importantly Southgate should – and surely will, given his approach so far – encourage his players to embrace the adventure ahead of them, rather than fear the repercussions of missing out.

That new mentality was plainly evident in the shootout with Colombia. The confidence and authority with which Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Kieran Trippier and Eric Dier hit the net showed no signs of a historic shadow hanging over this group. Even Jordan Henderson’s effort required a superb save.

All that after maturely dealing with the antics of Colombia’s players throughout the match.

Off the field and back at their Repino training base, there is a relaxed mood. The sense is this is an England team enjoying their trip, their tournament. What a contrast that is to the high-pressure, penned-in environment created under previous regimes.

This is no pleasure trip, though. It is not just a learning experience. England are at the World Cup with a job to do.

They have hit their stride now and they can go into the next round confident, optimistic and ready to capitalise on the chance that’s come their way.

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