The Three Lions gained renown for dispatching minnows Tunisia and Panama. Then a widely debated decision to field back-ups led to a 1-0 loss to Belgium to finish second in Group G, from which a comfortable route to the last-four opened up.
For Colombia, they recovered from losing with 10 men against Japan to beat Poland and Senegal. Group H’s winners, however, are sweating on Rodriguez’s availability because of a lingering calf complaint.
Here are the talking points ahead of Tuesday’s clash at Spartak Stadium:
ENGLAND’S KNOCKOUT BLOWS
Only England head coach Gareth Southgate will know whether he actively sought the path of least resistance.
After the brouhaha caused when dusting off the stiffs for a soulless 1-0 defeat to second-string Belgium when Group G reached an unseemly end, comes reality.
Colombia, followed by either Sweden or Switzerland. Rather than Japan, followed by Brazil or Mexico.
A combined tally of two World Cups won on their side of the draw, compared to 10 on the other.
Thursday’s failure has gained obvious reward.
Regardless of Colombia’s obvious strengths, and a fair few weaknesses, England face their friendliest run to the World Cup semi-finals since 1990.
But this is not the end of the debate. Not by a long shot.
Since the Three Lions lifted the hallowed Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966, football’s founding nation has suffered knockout blow after knockout blow.
They’ve won just five matches in 52 years once the group games are done – two of these coming during a special Italian summer soundtracked by Luciano Pavarotti when Belgium and Cameroon were conquered.
The other victims were Paraguay in 1986, Denmark in 2002 and Ecuador in 2006. Hardly a list of heavyweights.
This situation can be viewed in contrasting fashion.
Either England have not earned the right to feel comfortable about any opponent, or the avoidance of a likely quarter-final against Brazil was worth pursuing no matter the cost in lost momentum.
The truth will out, beginning at Spartak Stadium.
Defenders must be on their best behaviour in the Russian capital.
Colombia and England have been this edition’s set-piece kings. Between them, nine goals have come via corner-kicks, free-kicks or penalties.
For the South Americans, this represents three efforts from five in total. A figure that include Porto-owned playmaker Juan Quintero’s daisy cutter in the opening 2-1 loss to Japan, plus Barcelona centre-back Yerry Mina’s towering headers in the 3-0 defeat of Poland and 1-0 victory against Senegal – courtesy of Everton anchor man Idrissa Gueye’s schoolboy defending.
The Three Lions have dead balls to thank for six of their eight strikes. Some turnaround from Harry Kane’s perplexing output at Euro 2016.
The Tottenham superstar bagged from two corners in the 2-1 win against Tunisia, plus put away a brace of penalties in the 6-1 routing of Panama.
Manchester City centre-back John Stones also got two against the Central Americans from set-pieces.
The supreme delivery of Spurs wing-back Kieran Trippier has been central to this profitable return.
A raft of 6ft-plus figures will be eager to strike again at Spartak. Mina is joined by fellow centre-back Davinson Sanchez for the Colombians.
The latter’s inside knowledge from Spurs could help combat the likes of club-mate Kane, Stones and Leicester City giant Harry Maguire.
Air supremacy should carry the day.
COLOMBIA ARE IN A JAM
The expression on Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman’s face did not betray much joy about progression to the knockouts.
Images of Rodriguez pounding the turf in pain just 31 minutes into the Senegal denouement flooded his mind. Describing the Bayern Munich loanee as ‘essential’ to the nation’s hopes does not do his influence justice.
“I’m very concerned, it’s very worrying,” said Pekerman, who in a best-case scenario will only have a half-fit playmaker to select after another flare up of a nagging calf problem.
“It’s a very difficult situation for us. I do not know where he stands right now.
“I can’t say any more because I just don’t know.”
Rodriguez, of course, struck six times during the 2014 edition to fire Colombia to the quarter-finals for the first time. With them, he earned both the Golden Boot and a blockbuster move to Real Madrid.
This summer, the 26-year-old could only play the final 30 minutes in the opening reversal to Japan. But his virtuoso display against Poland, which included the pass of the tournament for Juan Cuadrado’s breakaway, spoke of his enduring ability – and importance.
Quintero’s impish skills have helped fill Rodriguez’s gap in absentia. His renaissance could be tested again versus England.
Here are the key tactical battles ahead of Tuesday’s clash at Spartak Stadium:
DOES DELE COME BACK IN?
It is a good problem to have for England head coach Gareth Southgate.
A thigh strain late in the first half of England’s opening 2-1 win against Tunisia has since robbed the Three Lions boss of Dele Alli’s presence. In his absence, Chelsea’s Ruben Loftus-Cheek has impressed.
With Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard looking untouchable, it appears a straight choice between Alli and Loftus-Cheek. On weight of goals, the former easily wins favour – 37 career Premier League efforts to just three.
But if England want to combat Colombia’s set-piece threat, Loftus-Cheek’s superior height – 6 ft 3 in to 6 ft 2 in – is worth considering. Goalkeeper David Ospina’s propensity to flap at crosses could also be exacerbated by Loftus-Cheek.
WHAT TO DO ABOUT JAMES?
Picking gaps in England’s 3-1-4-2 formation appeared a task Colombia are eminently capable of pulling off.
That was until James Rodriguez’s calf injury flared up against Senegal. If the Bayern Munich loanee struggles to make a third World Cup 2018 start, it leaves boss Jose Pekerman with plenty to ponder.
On-song Juan Quintero will relish pulling the strings. The decision then is whether to go for two pure wingers, another playmaker or a forward.
Brighton wide man Jose Izquierdo underwhelmed against Japan. Sevilla forward Luis Muriel then replaced Rodriguez early on against Senegal, but Colombia laboured to victory.
How they must rue the indiscretions of abandoned Edwin Cardona. There is no easy fix to replace someone of Rodriguez’s gifts.
PACE IS THE KEY
England’s successes in Russia have been based on the twinning of set-piece proficiency with sharp, incisive build-up play.
Expect the former-mentioned aspect to be cancelled out by the combative Colombians. Battles in the air will be relished by centre-backs Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez.
But it is on the ground where England can hope to gain joy. Sanchez has badly missed Tottenham club-mate Jan Vertonghen’s guidance, putting in a calamitous display against Japan.
Lingard was taken off early against Panama and rested versus Belgium, meaning his spot in the XI should be safe.
Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling has not scored internationally since October 2015. But his nimble feet have the potential to unsettle more than substitute Marcus Rashford.
Croatia recovered from the concession of World Cup 2018’s quickest goal to draw 1-1 with Denmark at the end of extra time and then reach the quarter-finals on penalties through Ivan Rakitic’s clincher.
Danish centre-back Mathias Jorgensen wrote his name into the record books within a minute when his low shot inside a packed penalty box squeezed in. But Croatia striker Mario Mandzukic scuffed home on four minutes after the ball fortuitously rebounded off Denmark midfielder Andreas Christensen’s face.
Few chances of note then followed at Nizhny Novgorod Stadium as the promise from an exciting first half quickly ebbed away. Penalties seemed a given until Luka Modric picked a pass of rare genius and Mathias Jorgensen felled forward Ante Rebic, but – watched on by legendary father Peter – goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel saved the former-mentioned’s effort from 12 yards on 116 minutes.
The shootout witnessed a pair of penalty misses apiece, before Nicolai Jorgensen’s third errant effort for the Danes was decisively punished by Rakitic.
Croatia’s reward is a last-eight tie against hosts Russia.
GLOVES OFF IN THE BIG FIGHT
This round-of-16 contest on the Volga River had been billed as a showcase for two of Europe’s premier playmakers, in Croatia’s Modric and Denmark’s Christian Eriksen.
Instead, the goalkeepers would define a match in which gripping entertainment sandwiched a dire filling.
Leicester City’s Schmeichel moved onto a respectable 20 penalty saves throughout his career, outside of shootouts, when he brilliantly repelled Modric’s extra-time punt. The 31-year-old had tweeted about tiresome comparisons being made to his lionized father in the build-up, but the apple doesn’t appear to have fallen far from the tree.
Monaco’s Danijel Subasic has won close to a half-century of caps without ever coming to the fore. Headlines are usually dominated by the likes of Modric, Rakitic and Mandzukic.
This script was flipped on Sunday. The mood was set when his fingertips pushed Eriksen’s opener in the shootout onto the post.
Lasse Schone and – decisively – Nicolai Jorgensen would then face similar rejection.
2 - This was only the second ever day in which two World Cup games were both decided by a penalty shootout – the other was on June 21st 1986 (France v Brazil and Mexico v Germany). Nerve. #CRODEN #CRO #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/kFnJXPEYIc— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 1, 2018
DANES GO FOR IT… THEN STOP
Denmark boss Age Hareide promised a greater attacking edge, but even he would have been amazed at how soon his prediction came true.
Just 57 seconds were on the clock when the ball fell to Huddersfield Town centre-back Mathias Jorgensen inside a packed penalty box. An instinctive low effort then squirmed past two lunging defenders and under unsighted goalkeeper Danijel Subasic for this World Cup’s quickest goal.
The fuse had been lit for ‘Danish Dynamite’ in record time. It would be a slow burner from that point, with Eriksen’s deployment providing bafflement.
To a degree, Hareide was good as his word. Only five attempts on goal were made by them in the dour Group C-stalemate against France – they reached this mark before 65 minutes on Sunday.
But the second half was, otherwise, a distinct disappointment.
Denmark favoured direct football over refined craftsmanship, the formation being tweaked to a 4-4-1-1. Attrition reigned over inspiration.
The ball was repeatedly pumped downed the channels. Confusingly, this meant Christian Eriksen – a playmaker involved in 18 goals during his last 16 caps – was a periphery figure.
By the end of normal time, the 26-year-old’s 48 touches was his nation’s joint-sixth best with Ipswich Town defender Jonas Knudsen.
No-one else could conjure an assist to rival his from Peru, or the stupendous volley that followed against Australia.
Hareide’s vision to gain a second-ever quarter-final berth came with a serious flaw.
00:57 - Mathias Jørgensen's goal was the quickest in a World Cup game since June 2014, when Clint Dempsey scored against Ghana after 29 seconds. Lightning. #CRODEN #DEN #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/3ir7CIw62d— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 1, 2018
DALIC ENGINEERS A DULL DISPLAY
Croatia flew through Group D in record fashion, winning all three matches for the first time in their history.
The final 2-1 victory against Iceland came despite nine changes being made. This appeared a cunning move at the time.
Dreams grew that a rested XI would stand greater chance in the knockouts of repeating 1998’s memorable march to the semi-finals.
Yet with the big guns back in their ranks, only penalties could break the stalemate after 116 stultifying minutes that followed Mandzukic’s fortunate opening goal of the 2018 edition.
The obvious argument is that 10 days of inaction for the likes of Real Madrid superstar Modric and Barcelona’s Rakitic took the edge off highly calibrated players.
Another interpretation is that Dalic was content with stasis. His substitutions appeared to play into this image.
The swap of Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic for Internazionale holder Marcelo Brozovic appeared positive on the surface. But this simply meant that Rakitic dropped deep.
Centre midfielder Milan Badelj rocketed in against Iceland, but his introduction during extra time for Mandzukic was not an adventurous move.
Modric’s through ball to Rebic to force the late, late penalty was incongruous to the negative play that surrounded it.
With Croatia in a bottom half of the draw that becomes more open by the day, greater adventure should gain grand reward.