Mental strength the key in England’s emotional win over Colombia

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Photo Credit: FIFA.com/Getty Images

England 1- Colombia 1- England advance on penalties.

On the 26th of June 1996 England lost at Wembley lost to Germany on penalties in the semi-finals of the European Championships. This was the year that “Football Was Coming Home,” 30 years after their World Cup triumph in 1996, it was manifest destiny that England would win their first European Championship title. The man who missed the penalty was Gareth Southgate. The current England manager had, alone, effectively ensured football did not come home.

England then exited competitions by penalties in 1998, 2004, 2006 and 2012. Last night England finally won a shoot-out against Colombia to book a last 16 place against Sweden. In 1996 England’s manager Terry Venables had to console a tearful Southgate. Tuesday night Southgate had tears of joy as he embraced England’s winning taker Eric Dier.

There is something different about this England team. In the past England have tended to go two ways, they either play in a forced pumped-up, chest-thumping over-emotional frenzy, or are shell-shocked and paralyzed by fear. Southgate has experienced playing in both teams. He has lived through the failures of the past. And he has cultivated a composed, calm and considered approach that has filtered through to his team. In the first-half Colombia clearly came to unsettle England with physical approach. It was a surprising tactic from the Colombians due to how unruffled England were by an incredibly physical Panama team. England stuck to their system and game-plan, took the lead and looked to see the game out. But even when Colombia scored a stoppage time equalizer to send the game into extra-time there wasn’t a flicker of panic or dismay in the face of Southgate. He gestured to his players and his coaching staff to keep calm and simply moved onto the next game-plan.

In a moment like that you could imagine England managers of the past dropping their heads, surrendering to the fate of “Same old England.” But Southgate looked beyond. He knew that in tournament football here will be last minute goals. There will be penalties. There will be defensive errors. Yes, the weight of the nation rests on the shoulders of the players. That either defeats you, or you have the mental strength to look past it and focus on the goal of winning the game. It is this mental strength that Southgate has instilled in his players.

England did note create many chances. Their shape in the first half was good, and they enjoyed most of the play without being much of a threat. Raheem Sterling had his best game of the tournament holding the ball up incredibly well against Cololmbia’s vicious defense. After Harry Kane slotted away the penalty, Colombia grew into the game, but England kept their composure. Kane was magnificent dropping deep for much of the second half, frustrating Colombia by slowing play down and winning free-kicks. The introduction of Eric Dier of 81 minutes for Alli meant England naturally defended deeper and that invited Colombia to attack. Seeing as Colombia went onto score suggests that Southgate’s game-management can be called into question.

The hero of the night was Jordan Pickford. First he made a spectacular save from a thunder-bolt of a shot from Uribe just before the Colombia goal. And then made the crucial save from David Ospina to set-up Eric Dier to score the winner. Up to that point Dier had been playing the role of the eventual scape-goat should England lose after missing an open header in extra-time. For him to step-up and take England’s fifth and deciding penalty shows the belief these players have in themselves that has always been missing from England players in shoot-outs in the past. There was also a touching moment after the match when Southgate went to put an arm around Ospina (It’s not known if Southgate advised him on whether to appear in a Pizza Hut commercial in the next few months like Southgate did after missing against Germany!).

The result means that England have reached the Quarter Finals for the first time since 2006, and now have a great opportunity to reach the semi-finals, something they have only done on two occasions in their history. At the start of the tournament England would surely have considered a quarter final place a success. England have a tough opponent in a very organized Sweden. England failed to create much against Cololmbia and Sweden will relish creating a blockage in their 18-yard box and look to hit on the break. There have been so many unexpected twists-and-turns it is pointless trying to predict any match at this World Cup. England have it in them to beat Sweden, but Sweden will be thinking the same. England could go all the way to the final. If they maintain the fortitude they’ve shown throughout the tournament they’ve got a chance, but even if they do lose, this has been a tournament where the players and manager can hold their heads high and be proud of their performance.

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