England return to World Cup semis with 2-0 win over Sweden

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Jordan Pickford collected his first shutout of the 2018 World Cup in England’s 2-0 win over Sweden on Saturday (photo credit: FIFA.com/Getty Images)

England 2-Sweden 0

On paper this had the makings of a tense afternoon for both teams. Sweden have impressed at this World Cup with 3 wins, their only loss being the last minute Toni Kroos free-kick. Most worryingly for England, a team that has struggled to create chances in the tournament, Sweden have kept a clean sheet in all three of their wins. In this post-Zlatan Sweden, the team is aware of their limitations on the attacking front, and so have achieved success through organization and solid defence. They give teams no space in the middle forcing you out wide, only to create a blockade in the 18-yard box. This was the side that knocked out Italy in qualifying, and had gained a reputation for sucking the life out of games, like the football equivalent of a Dementor in Harry Potter. England were favorites, but there was no denying Sweden had the ability to crush their dreams.

It was a jittery start to the game. England players seemed relaxed ahead of kick-off, but perhaps the blow of the referees whistle was an abrupt reminder of what was on the line. There were wayward passes from both teams, and neither managed to get a grip on the game. On 13 minutes Victor Claesson had an open shot at goal from 35 yards but his shot sailed over Jordan Pickford’s goal. Slowly England began to gain their composure. Raheem Sterling, who had his best game of the tournament, broke forward on the counter, and teed the ball for Harry Kane who scuffed his shot wide.

It was not a surprise that the goal came from a set-piece. Knowing England’s threat from corners, Sweden would have been furious to give a way a cheap corner and paid the price. England’s movement in the box shook up the Sweden the defense, who left Harry Maguire open. At time it feels like the ball is a magnet to Maguire’s head, and he buried the ball emphatically into the corner from Ashley Young’s cross.

England could, and possibly should, have doubled their lead. Raheem Sterling’s movement had befuddled the usually stable Swedish defense for much of the half, and he ran onto to a perfect past from Henderson, but unfortunately Sterling’s finishing let him down.

Sweden were better in the second half and nearly leveled soon after the restart. Marcus Berg directed a header which seemed destined for the bottom corner, but Jordan Pickford pulled off an astonishing save to keep England’s lead. It meant that England would always need that second goal to calm nerves and just before the hour. A cross from Sterling looped over the defense to Alli to head home and double the lead.

England still had to see the game off. Pickford made two more good saves to keep his first clean-sheet of the tournament. But England ran the clock down effectively and ensured they booked their place with little fuss. It was the most impressive performance an England team has put out for many years. Considering a win would mean that England men’s team would reach the World Cup semi-finals for only the second time (the women’s team achieved this in 2015), the game felt more like a qualification game than a quarter final.

Sweden were ultimately beat by a better team but they can hold their heads high. Manager Janne Andersson said after their win against Switzerland that “Football is a team sport and this team really personifies that.” Whereas so many nations like Argentina, Germany and Spain failed before them, Sweden showed that if you turn up and play as a team then you can achieve success.

Southgate has instilled a similar belief in his men. England are a team of players doing their job in a system that is working and it has cultivated a culture of togetherness and confidence in each other. England teams of the past have been crippled under the expectation of fans back home. This time the fans are signing “It’s Coming Home” but rather than put pressure on this group, it is galvanizing them. The players are even tweeting about it.

There is a synergy between the fans and the players that is impossible to manufacture. Perhaps in the past the England team knew that if they failed they would be slammed by the fans, and so the fear of making mistakes turned to into a self-fulfilling prophecy. This team knows that even if they don’t actually manage to “Bring Football Home” and win the World Cup they will still be treated like heroes. This is a team liberated from the past, so they are just enjoying the ride while they’re on it.

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