Dumbs Gone to Iceland, Ice Wallies, Cod Help Us, England’s Greatest Humiliation, England’s Darkest Day.
Whether Gareth Southgate’s charges now return from Russia with the World Cup or not, they’ve already achieved the impossible.
It is only two summers since newspapers – august or downmarket, broadsheet and tabloid – agonisingly detailed the national game’s nadir. Sunday’s front pages were full of contrasting cheer and bombast about an ascension to the semi-finals that resided only in hope, rather than expectation, three weeks ago.
For the first time since a special sun-kissed spell in Italy 28 years ago, the globe’s grandest competition has not elicited wild recrimination from the fourth estate. This is what a 2-0 triumph against Sweden can do for the mood.
England supporters have been conditioned, by failure after futile failure, to expect nothing but disappointment.
They are also meant to suffer heart-wrenching sorrow from penalty shootouts. Chris Waddle and Stuart Pearce in 1990, David Batty in 1998, Steven Gerrard in 2006.
That onerous weight was lifted against Colombia last week.
Confounding rock-bottom expectation is head coach Southgate’s great gift.
A ‘Golden Generation’ has come and gone, leaving nothing but unfulfilled potential in their wake.
The last occasion when English heads were held this high was Euro 1996. Halcyon days when football was first “coming home”.
Southgate – the fall guy from the shootout then against Germany that killed hopes of cherished success on home soil – has shown leadership and dignity in a period when political figures wallow in the swamp that British discourse has descended into.
Hard or soft Brexit, cast to one side as a fractured populace unites under one banner.
Ruptures caused at Euro 2016 should have taken several generations to heal.
England’s misadventure ended with debutants Iceland – the smallest nation to ever qualify – rebounding from Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty to inflict a 2-1 defeat during the round of 16.
This wrenched out the stitches applied to wounds caused by the caustic failure at World Cup 2014.
Both humiliations were endured under Roy Hodgson.
Shame that was added to when initial replacement Sam Allardyce’s position was rendered untenable in September 2016 after one qualifying triumph.
This followed allegations of impropriety about getting around Football Association bans on third-party ownership of players.
To now be one win away from a first World Cup final since 1966, two wins away from following in the lionised footsteps of Sir Bobby Charlton and Co., seemed an impossible prospect on that inexcusable day against Iceland at Allianz Riviera.
This isn’t a perfect picture. And Southgate doesn’t pertain to paint one.
Rewind back to Italia ’90 and England’s progression to the last-four was not plain sailing, either.
Stultifying draws against Republic of Ireland and the Netherlands was followed by a tense 1-0 win against Egypt to advance from Group F.
From there, extra-time was needed to see off Belgium. Cameroon then came from behind to move within eight minutes of progression to the semis at their expense.
In comparison, England’s contemporary run has been more mundane.
Enlivening victories, late and heavy, were handed out to minnows Tunisia and Panama.
The luxury of resting stars versus Belgium was afforded as Group G wound down in a game that both probably wanted to lose. Legitimate claims were made to being the better side against Colombia and Sweden in the knockouts.
Sir Bobby Robson, Gary Lineker and Paul Gascoigne. Names who were written into England’s lore the last time they reached this rarified stage.
Southgate, Harry Kane and Harry Maguire have already matched this legacy.
The challenge is to secure betterment, beginning with Wednesday’s date with destiny against Croatia at Luzhniki Stadium.
A country, until this ethereal month rendered weary by decades of underachievement, now expects.
Friday was not a good one for those who ascribe an inexorable quality to the chant “football’s coming home”.
A fitting champion emerged from two heavyweight contests that helped guarantee a European winner for the fourth-successive running.
These opening quarter-finals set a standard that the weaker side of the draw can only aspire to. England coasting towards a 2-0 victory against limited Sweden doesn’t cut it.
Next Sunday’s showpiece at Luzhniki Stadium has had plenty of lustre removed by the unavoidable conclusion that the true decider will have been played in Saint Petersburg five days previously.
Inevitability now defines the engraving of France or Belgium’s name on the trophy.
Antoine Griezmann made his own fortune and sent Les Bleus into the last-four with a 2-0 triumph against Edinson Cavani-less Uruguay. No flourish, but quiet assuredness – the very definition of a Didier Deschamps-side.
Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez then ripped up the script from the close shave against Japan and moved Kevin De Bruyne to centre stage as pre-tournament favourites Brazil were sent packing thanks to a 2-1 victory.
De Rode Duivels performed like angels in the competition’s defining match to date. Even usual lummox Marouane Fellaini showed remarkable self-discipline when tasked with keeping perennial provocateur Neymar deathly quiet.
Battle lines are being drawn by geographical neighbours who have produced squads with a combined value estimated at more than €2 billion (Dh8.7bn) by the CIES Football Observatory.
Les Bleus have been a walking exhibition of self-control through their time in Russia. Belgium in contrast, were European qualifying’s joint-top scorers and have continued this valuable trait.
Uruguay were kept at arm’s length by France and then punished for both slack marking at a set-piece for Real Madrid centre-back Raphael Varane’s header, plus Griezmann’s pot shot from 25 yards that slipped through Fernando Muslera’s fingertips.
Deschamps’ outfit have averaged just 11 shots per game. In Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud, they have a centre forward leading the line who has yet to produce an attempt on target this summer from four matches – never mind score a goal.
Exclude the madness of the 4-3, round-of-16 win against Argentina and they’ve conceded just once in four other matches – Mile Jedinak’s penalty for Australia in France’s 2-1 opening Group C victory.
Belgium’s ‘Golden Generation’ of De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Co. are averaging 17 attempts per match. This World Cup’s leading scorers with 14 goals showcased their double threat in an open and entertaining contest against Brazil.
Buoyed by Fernandinho’s own goal, they produced one of this tournament’s most-enlivening moves when Lukaku tore forward from deep and De Bruyne sent a precision finish past the helpless Alisson.
The South Americans had three times as many attempts as their European conquerors (27 to nine) and bossed possession (58 per cent to 42 per cent).
In the second-half alone, Belgium recorded just one shot on target to Brazil’s 17. They prevailed because of Thibaut Courtois’ masterclass between the posts, plus a generous call from the Video Assistant Referee to not punish centre-back Vincent Kompany for a bludgeoning foul on Manchester City club-mate Gabriel Jesus.
France allowed just 21 attempts against them in three group-stage matches, plus another 21 combined in their two knockout trials to date.
.@paulpogba contre l'Uruguay c'est:— Equipe de France (@equipedefrance) July 7, 2018
25 duels (meilleur total du match)
56% de duels gagnés
100 ballons touchés
8 ballons récupérés (meilleur total du match)
5 dégagements défensifs#FiersdetreBleus #FRAURU pic.twitter.com/UnTRfNTbz1
Vantage points on the value of this stoic statistic produce contrasting views.
Either the 1998 champions are exhibiting the necessary defensive acumen to repeat the achievement of two decades prior, or the theme of underperformance by electric constituent parts has been extended from Euro 2016’s painful run on home soil to defeat in the final.
One area of the pitch in which France are excelling, however, is centre midfield.
The boundless Paul Pogba and ubiquitous N’Golo Kante have clicked into gear at the right time.
Belgium defensive midfielders Marouane Fellaini and Axel Witsel will be confident of breaking up this partnership. In front of them, De Bruyne, Hazard and Lukaku are an attacking unit without compare when at their searing best.
A grandstand occasion awaits in Saint Petersburg.
Leicester City defender Maguire converted yet another set-piece on 30 minutes. Tottenham midfielder Alli was then picked out by Manchester United playmaker Jesse Lingard on 58 minutes to send the Three Lions into dreamland at Cosmos Arena.
Either side of these strikes, their Scandinavian opponents could not find a way past the superb Jordan Pickford.
Here are the talking points:
THREE LIONS MARCH ON
England continue to get the job done in Russia – and raise expectations back home.
This is what a first World Cup semi-final since 1990 will do to a success-starved nation of football obsessives.
Maguire’s towering header made it eight set-piece goals from them in this edition, the most since Portugal in 1966. ‘A Great Year for English Football’, to steal a famous Nike advert’s tagline.
Chances came and went for Sweden. In-between, Alli did the business to convert Lingard’s cross to the back post.
From an anonymous display which betrayed his continued struggles with injury, the 22-year-old is now his nation’s second-youngest scorer at a World Cup.
England doubled Sweden’s tally of attempts (12 to six). In the previous round against Colombia across 120 minutes, they recorded 16 attempts.
A not dissimilar number. Vitally, a second goal through Alli provided security this time and negated the need for a penalty shootout.
Pickford’s incredible reactions also helped earn a first clean sheet of the tournament.
England are making the most of the easier side of the draw. Gareth Southgate’s decision to abandon continuity of selection for the Group G-finale against Belgium becomes wiser by the round.
They are professional, committed and organised – all adjectives absent four years when they went home winless from the groups and then were humiliated against Iceland in Euro 2016’s second stage.
Conclusions are hard to draw from a first-choice XI yet to face a stern test. But Southgate and his troops keep coming up with the right answers.
22y 87d - Dele Alli is the second youngest player to score a World Cup goal for England, behind only Michael Owen (18y 190d v Romania in 1998). Youth. #ENG #SWEENG #WorldCup pic.twitter.com/E120fo5XVP— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 7, 2018
SWEDEN LOSE THEIR SPARK
An unsatisfying end then, to Sweden’s redoubtable journey.
Moulded in the image of spiky head coach Janne Andersson, the Scandinavians had left a trail of reputations in tatters. They saw off the Netherlands in qualifying, Italy in the play-offs and emerged from a Group F in which holders Germany – who required Toni Kroos’ last-minute heartbreaker to beat them – were eliminated.
It is a squad lacking few discernible standouts since the retirement of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but they were set-up in a bullish 4-4-2 formation which had conceded only two goals en route to the quarter-finals.
They came so close to repeating 1994’s unlikely charge to the semi-finals. A run of just two England wins from their last 15 meetings just could not be extended.
Chances were created in Samara, as throughout the tournament. Again, a combination of awe-inspiring reflexes from Everton goalkeeper Pickford and Marcus Berg’s personal funk in front of goal contrived to keep them scoreless.
In the second half, Pickford picked out a searching header and rushed volley from the scoreless Al Ain man. In-between, he darted down to push away Viktor Claesson’s low effort and then Jordan Henderson did the rest on the rebound.
These were Sweden’s only three efforts on target from six attempts.
In truth, some of the usual spark and fight was absent. A style which demands attrition may have drained the energy banks too much for a last test.
STERLING NEEDS HIS SHOOTING BOOTS
Sweden’s defenders will rue the day they had to face Raheem Sterling.
The Manchester City forward was a central cog in Southgate’s tactical plan for the first half. His darting runs across, behind and in front of the opposing centre-backs allowed space for the likes of Jesse Lingard, Harry Kane and Alli – plus, himself.
But again, for all his virtues, a blank was drawn. This leaves the England supremo with a decision to make for the deep end of competition.
Sterling’s big moment came just before the interval. Picked out by former Liverpool colleague Jordan Henderson deft ball from deep, he was yet again played in the clear.
Bereft of confidence, goalkeeper Robin Olsen used his elongated 6 ft 6 in frame to paw away an attempt to round him. Then, a combination of personal indecision and Kane’s poor run led to a blocked shot.
A tally of 23 goals and 12 assists all club competitions in 2017/18 threatened to make him a breakout star.
Reality hasn’t been as kind in Russia. He performs a selfless job valued immensely by squad members and technical staff. Marcus Rashford – who replaced him in the 91st minute – was outscored last term and Jamie Vardy also struck 23 times.
But does either have a strong shout to now enter England’s XI? After seven attempts across four games without finding the back of the net, it’s an issue to ponder.