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.
Of the eight teams who remain in the World Cup, not one possesses a player who has won the tournament or in fact has appeared in a final.
But two sides with previous World Cup pedigree and a current crop of real thoroughbreds contest the opening quarter-final as Uruguay and France meet at the Nizhny Novgorod Stadium on Friday (UAE time 18:00).
The two-time winning South Americans have been a picture of consistency throughout the tournament and although Les Bleus flattered to deceive in the group stages, they sparked to life last time out against Argentina.
Here, we examine some of the key questions ahead of the last-eight clash.
CAVE WITHOUT CAV?
Pictures emerged this week of striker Edinson Cavani hobbling down the stairs of the team’s hotel and without him, Uruguay may well struggle to climb past France.
The 31-year-old was outstanding during the 2-1 elimination of Portugal but the blot arrived in the second half as he was forced off with a thigh injury.
Indeed, aside from his two goals, the Paris Saint-Germain star demonstrated why he is one of the world’s most complete forwards.
He held the ball up superbly, dropped deep to support his midfield and made tackles while also pressing and bullying Portugal into mistakes before then producing the goods in front of goal.
And the cerebral understanding Cavani’s developed with Luis Suarez is as much part of Uruguay’s identity as Diego Godin and Jose Gimenez are at the back.
Uruguay’s solidity begins with the two frontmen as both run themselves into the ground for any long ball lumped forward and while the alternatives, Girona’s Cristhian Stuani or Celta Vigo’s Maximiliano Gomez, can replace the work ethic, they cannot offer the same finishing prowess.
Naturally, pressure will fall on Suarez’s shoulders and it will be of great discomfort for boss Oscar Tabarez that he picked up a knock in training.
The Barcelona predator is expected to be fit to face France but the prognosis for Cavani is far less favourable. Suarez, though, was his strike partner’s equal against Portugal and if the 31-year-old can replicate that display, La Celeste can win the battle of blues.
WILL LIGHTNING FEET STRIKE TWICE?
A Kylian Mbappe shaped lightning bolt struck through the centre of a soft Argentina backline in the last-16 and the current of that electric performance sent shockwaves around the world.
Credit must go to the boldness of Les Bleus boss Didier Deschamps as his ploy to switch into a hybrid 4-4-2/4-3-3 with Blaise Matuidi as a left-sided centre-midfielder was designed to charge up the teenager.
And the PSG forward was a space invader, gobbling up gaps as if he possessed some cheat code in his free-roaming role.
Speed of feet and thought were of course his weapons as the 19-year-old earned a penalty then notched a brace, but as the conversation turns towards his future Ballon d’Or credentials, the tactical talking point now is whether can he do it again.
Argentina’s suicidal centre-backs pushed up high against France and then practically fell over themselves as Mbappe ran at them.
He is unlikely to be afforded the same room to move on Friday against arguably the most organised and compact defence in the tournament.
Godin and Gimenez combine for a pairing which was the tightest in European club football at Atletico Madrid and the only difference in Russia is the colour of their kit.
Piercing pace is blunted by a lack of space and few centre-backs defend pockets better than Godin. Add to that Paul Pogba won’t be granted the same time on the ball to ping long balls on the counter and Deschamps may well need to devise another route to goal.
THROW THE DICE ON DEMBELE?
So what are the other options in France’s armory? Ousmane Dembele was dropped against Argentina to help alleviate Mbappe’s defensive responsibility but could be welcomed back.
While the 21-year-old has mirrored his struggles for Barcelona for France, he does bring what could be a crucial quality – natural width.
Making inroads through the middle could see France run into traffic but where they could find joy is out wide.
Mbappe is more adept at drifting centrally than he is hugging the touchline but Dembele is practically married to it.
He’s direct and tricky, both assets which could unsettle aging right-back Martin Caceres and therefore create the opening for either the head of Olivier Giroud or the guile of Antoine Griezmann.