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Equal Time: England now have a clear path to the World Cup

Tuesday 3rd July 2018

As Russia celebrated and Spain wept, England should have been watching with extreme interest.

Ignore the doubters and naysayers. Russia’s shock victory has handed the Three Lions their best chance of reaching a World Cup final in 28 years. In their side of the draw, England are the only team to have ever actually won a World Cup [also ignore that no Three Lions players nor the manager were born when that occurred].

If Gareth Southgate and his squad had been offered a route through Colombia, Sweden or Switzerland, and then Croatia or Russia before the tournament, they would have taken it gladly.

They are all very winnable games on FIFA18 and certainly fixtures this group of players and management, who have played good football in Russia, will be confident of navigating successfully.

First, they must find a way past Colombia, arguably the most difficult fixture. Los Cafeteros are a dangerous side with plenty of attacking power, a fact they demonstrated when they blew Poland away.

Theycan be exposed, however. The centre-back pairing of Yerry Mina and Davinson Sanchez are young and are prone to lapses in concentration. Both will be unnerved at the prospect of taking on Harry Kane. Tottenham teammate Sanchez knows just how good the striker is and has surely communicated that to his partner.

David Ospina is another weak link. The Arsenal goalkeeper always has a mistake in him. England’s forward players can take advantage of the weakness at the heart of the Columbia defence.

Another key aspect will be James Rodriguez's likely absence. The midfielder is the key cog in this Columbia side, the team's heartbeat.

One only has to review how they have performed without him in Russia to see how badly he will be missed. It will hit Radamel Falcao particularly hard.

Falcao remains a dangerous striker but he is missing the extra yard of pace that once made him feared throughout Europe. El Tigre’s claws are not quite as sharp.

That is not to say Colombia are not a dangerous side or that this is an easy fixture, but England have all the tools at their disposal to complete the job.  

That would set up a quarter-final with either Sweden or Switzerland. Again, these are two sides England should be confident of beating.

Switzerland may be higher in FIFA’s rankings, but that is more about gaming the system than quality. They are not the sixth best international side.

If England can control Xherdan Shaqiri, a player with whom the entirety of the current Three Lions defence are well acquainted, they can control Switzerland.

Vladimir Petkovic admitted before the tournament that a gap exists between them the Swiss and the other top sides. England should consider themselves the better squad. 

Sweden lack a star player in Zlatan Ibrahimovic's absence. Emil Forsberg has not turned up in Russia.

They are a good team with a strong work ethic and an impressive defence. Janne Andersson's side performed well to reach this stage, but they are nothing special.

That was demonstrated in the performance against Germany, a game in which they struggled and quality eventually told.

A win over either side leads England to a semifinal with Croatia or Russia, a fixture that England again should not be fear.

Russia are riding high but they remain a relatively poor side. Uruguay destroyed them. Spain turned down the opportunity to do the same.

They are particularly weak to pace in behind. That plays perfectly into an England attack that boasts speed and energy through Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard.  

Croatia benefit from an undeserved reputation. They are wrongly seen as a team that has taken this tournament by storm.

They managed just two shots on target against Nigeria to scrape a victory and were far from impressive against Argentina until La Albiceleste lost the plot. They were also less than impressive in a dead rubber against Iceland.

Croatia consistently falters in the knockout stages of major tournaments despite impressing in the groups. Drawn against Portugal in Euro 2016, they were predicted to breeze through. Instead, they froze, created nothing and were knocked out in added time.

The cracks showed against Denmark, another side they were predicted to beat with ease.

I won't argue that their central midfield isn't better than England’s, but it's their only advantage, and one the Three Lions can overcome with teamwork. Meanwhile, England’s defence have more than enough to deal with Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Perisic is yet to show up.

At the opposite end, England should expose Croatia’s defence, They are weak against set pieces but are you going to put your money on Harry Kane or Dejan Lovren?  

That said, England can't get ahead of themselves. There is no such thing as an easy game in a World Cup. Ask Spain, Germany or Belgium.

But in terms of opportunity, this is England's best since 1990. Russia opened the draw in their favour by defeating Spain.

This young, energetic collection of Premier League stars has enough to beat all the teams lying in wait.

Sean Lunt

Football journalist working in the North West mainly covering Everton and Liverpool but with musings on anything football related. 


Total articles: 110

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