Former England manager Sven-Goran Eriksson says Saturday’s World Cup quarter-final against Sweden will be “their most difficult game so far”.
The 70-year-old Swede, who led the Three Lions to the last eight of the 2002 and 2006 World Cups, believes his home nation possess similar attributes to England’s Euro 2016 conquerors Iceland.
And Eriksson warned that Gareth Southgate’s side may have been better off facing tournament favourites Brazil rather than Sweden.
“England have a great chance to make a World Cup semi-final,” Eriksson said in quotes reported by the Mirror. “But, if anyone in the squad thinks they have an easy game on Saturday, they’re wrong.
“It’ll be the most difficult game they’ll have played so far, they can bet on that.
“It would be easier for England to beat Brazil than to beat Sweden, in my opinion.
“Sweden will be more or less the same as Iceland in Euro 2016 – they don’t have the best footballers in the world, and none of our players would play in the first team of the biggest clubs in the world since Zlatan (Ibrahimovic) has left.”
Eriksson added that Janne Andersson’s side – who eliminated Holland and Italy in qualifying and topped the group which defending champions Germany finished bottom of – would be hard to break down despite the threat of tournament top-scorer Harry Kane.
“As a team, the way they work together, they are one of the best,” he added. “Sweden today are a very hard team to break down.
“Their strikers are defenders when it’s time to defend, and they can defend in their own box as well.
“You won’t find a better team – Sweden are world champions of team spirit.
“Harry Kane will be a tougher challenge than they’re used to, but Sweden won’t be impressed by Kane – or whoever is in the England team. Not at all.
“I can see a draw and extra-time. England have set-pieces, Sweden will make some chances, but the game will come down to luck – the team that makes the most of their luck will win. It will be very tight.
“Many teams have tried to break down Sweden. Italy couldn’t score in 180 minutes in the qualifying play-offs. Germany struggled in the group stage and needed Toni Kroos’ free-kick to save them. Switzerland could have played for a week and still not scored against Sweden.
“The defence is a great strength. Especially from set-pieces. Sweden are a tall team at the back and very well organised.
“Both teams will have the problem of scoring. It’s a good thing that England are scoring from corners, penalties and free-kicks, and they look very dangerous from these all the time.”
Raheem Sterling exemplified England’s ability to stay calm in the face of provocation against Colombia, a quality he feels was vital in carrying the Three Lions to the last eight of the World Cup.
Gareth Southgate’s side booked their place in the quarter-finals by finally conquering their penalty demons in Moscow but, in order to reach the shootout, they had to endure 120 minutes of ill-temper, gamesmanship and mind games from the South Americans.
With referee Mark Geiger proving a flimsy authority figure, Colombia turned every corner into a drama, attempted to physically block England taking set-pieces and took things up a notch when Wilmar Barrios headbutted Jordan Henderson.
Sterling was also on the receiving end of some harsh treatment, not least when a member of the Colombian fitness coach Eduardo Julio Urtasun appeared to barge the England winger with his shoulder as he headed for the tunnel at half-time.
“I just remember running in and someone stepped in front of me,” he said of the incident.
“There were a couple of times when I went over for a drinks break and he kept saying something. Obviously I don’t speak Spanish so I didn’t understand but then there was half-time too. I just kind of looked back at him, but we knew their game plan and exactly what they were trying to do.
“We knew what would get thrown at us and that was kind of silly from him. We just keep going, black that out and focus on the football. They’re a physical team. They were trying to do everything they could to get into our heads but we kept cool heads and that’s the most important thing.
“It’s up to the ref to clamp down it and we can’t really get involved in it.”
Sterling suggested he would not be seeking any further action against the coach, content simply to leave Spartak Stadium with a quarter-final date against Sweden.
“We’re through and happy, we move on,” he said.
England’s calmness under pressure was again personified by captain Harry Kane.
As against Tunisia and Panama, he was bundled, wrestled and shoved at corners and refused to lash out.
When Geiger did award a penalty in the second half he rose above several minutes of squabbling, and a cynical attempt by Johan Mojica to scuff the penalty spot with his boots, to rifle home his sixth goal of the tournament.
“I didn’t see that (from Mojica), I just saw them trying to get into his ears. For H’s penalty we stuck together and we were trying to get the players away from each other,” said Sterling.
“It’s credit to him – he works on this stuff in training every single day. Repetition. He keeps a cool head and I had no doubt even in the back of my mind that he wouldn’t put it away.
“Before the tournament (Southgate) has given us everything that could be thrown at us – every single possibility from going behind to the opposition trying to get you yellow or red cards. We knew we had to keep our heads.”
Jordan Henderson admits he will owe fellow Sunderland boy Jordan Pickford for the rest of his life after missing in England’s dramatic shootout triumph over Colombia – but is willing to take another World Cup spot-kick if required.
Henderson was the only Englishman who failed to convert from 12 yards on Tuesday night in Moscow, Arsenal’s David Ospina guessing correctly and palming away a cleanly-struck effort.
At that moment the Liverpool captain looked set to join the likes of Chris Waddle, David Batty, David Beckham and current manager Gareth Southgate himself as a fall guy for another English disappointment.
Mateus Uribe shot against the bar to put England back on an even keel but it took a brilliant save from Pickford, denying Carlos Bacca, to pave the way for victory.
Henderson and Pickford were born just a few miles apart and though they never crossed paths in the Sunderland first team and now reside on opposite sides of the Mersey divide, they will forever be linked by events at Spartak Stadium.
“I thanked him, I can’t thank him enough, I’m forever in his debt. He says the Mackems stick together!” revealed Henderson.
“You obviously fear the worst when you miss the penalty but Pickers has done brilliantly with the save. We’re a really close group, I think you can see that.
“It’s difficult when you miss and nothing can be said that’s going to make it alright but it’s not about me, it doesn’t really matter now, we won and that’s the main thing.”
Henderson was already starting to blank out his missed attempt and indicated a willingness to step up again – if allowed.
“I can hardly remember it,” he said. “Maybe it was a good height for the keeper if anything, it needed to be higher or lower but in penalties you can miss or there can be a good save. Thankfully the lads dug me out.
“It wouldn’t put me off but it might put Gareth off! I’d take another one but obviously it’s down to the manager and I would understand if he chose someone else.”
Pickford was simply pleased for the chance to bail Henderson, and the team, out of a hole.
“He said to me ‘well done you fellow Mackem’. I said ‘Jesus, I’ve helped you out there lad’,” the Everton keeper added.
“That’s team-mates isn’t it? A bit of craic. We’re together, when one goes down we’ve got to pick them back up. I just got down to business really. I trusted my instinct and went that way…..strong hands, I’m happy.”
“It was a timely intervention from Pickford after he was scrutinised for failing to keep out Belgium’s winner last week, using the same technique which paid off handsomely in the shootout.
“I used my top hand…I get criticised about the top hand but I don’t think I’ll be getting criticised about it now,” he said.