Belfast Telegraph

England will never have a better chance of winning the World Cup but must improve, writes Billy Hamilton

By Billy Hamilton

As the World Cup shocks come thick and fast, England will never have a better chance of winning the tournament.

Even the Samba Boys have stopped dancing and they are on their way home.

Belgium and France march on and you've got to say they both look like potential winners. You can't really say that about England, however.

I know football is a funny old game but surely it's not this funny.

If Gareth Southgate's men show quality, courage and belief they can lift the prize but in my view they must significantly raise their game.

Reaching the quarter-finals is a commendable achievement and they are certainly capable of overcoming Sweden this afternoon, but football isn't coming home yet and it's unlikely to.

A few highly-fancied teams have failed to perform and got what they deserved. Argentina, Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Germany… many people's favourites to win the tournament have gone and that's given fresh hope to other nations, making it a wide open field particularly on England's side of the draw.

Had they lost to Colombia they would have been haunted by the 'what if?' question.

This quarter-final against Sweden is another winnable tie.

But my biggest concern regarding England is their vulnerability at the back

Their defence didn't look convincing, while in attack Raheem Sterling, Jesse Lingard and Dele Alli really need to produce fireworks.

I felt England made very hard work of their win over a very impotent Colombia. Weak refereeing allowed Colombia to keep 11 players on the pitch but England weren't smart enough to finish them off.

Southgate's men played poorly - well within themselves and conceded late on to take it to penalties. It should never have come to that.

The wildly optimistic England fan will say the can win the World Cup and everyone's allowed to dream, but not on the evidence of the Colombia game.

England got lucky and you only get away with that once in a World Cup.

But I believe they will comfortably eliminate Sweden.

Russia face Croatia tonight and you've got to admire the hosts for their performances as they were being dismissed by everyone but came up with a game-plan to bring down the mighty Spain.

Spain just didn't do enough and Russia clearly planned to take them to penalties and it worked.

Uruguay hammered the host nation 3-0 earlier in the tournament, underlining their vulnerability, but Russia's fighting spirit was handsomely rewarded.

You could argue that Spain got what they deserved after sacking their manager Julen Lopetegui on the eve of the tournament.

A few matches in this World Cup have been disappointing but in terms of pure drama, excitement and the quality of the goals I can't recall a better one.

Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have gone home and I'm not too upset about that because the spotlight can now shine on other players like the brilliant Kylian Mbappe, even if he seems to have attended the same acting school as Neymar.

Some teams will start to look a little tired but the side that really went through the gears in their last 16 clash was France, who blew away Argentina and now they have earned a semi-final with Belgium.

While Mbappe was majestic against Argentina, a lot of people have aimed a dig at Neymar for his acting performance against Mexico.

But I have some sympathy for the Paris Saint-Germain man.

He was repeatedly kicked off the pitch and it doesn't help when referees aren't strong enough to red cards for consistent fowling.

It was the same in the England game against Colombia. Harry Kane was consistently fouled but no action was taken.

Neymar did overreact but Miguel Layun shouldn't have stood on him with the intention of inflicting pain and it was a red card offence with the Brazilian deserving a booking for his histrionics.

As for Argentina, I couldn't understand why Sergio Aguero was left on the bench. Surprise, surprise, he comes on and scores but their manager Jorge Sampaoli appeared to be sidelined with Lionel Messi calling the shots.

I think this will be Messi's last World Cup. He will be 35 when the Qatar tournament comes around and you just feel his pain because his team-mates are nowhere near his level. He was coming into a deeper position to retrieve the ball but you need Messi around the opponent's box where he can do damage.

In the knockout stages you are guaranteed drama and tension and there will be more today. England in the semi-finals? Can you believe it?

Belfast Telegraph

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