Belfast Telegraph

England's new guard free from old ghosts

By Jack Pitt-Brooke

How would you expect a young England team with no experience at this level to come back from the most painful punch they will ever take? Would you even hope to see them drag themselves up off the canvas and do anything quite like this?

Here in Moscow, almost at midnight, Gareth Southgate's World Cup novices reacted to unprecedented disaster with unprecedented nerve, bravery and barely precedented success.

Because the fact that England are in the World Cup quarter-finals, facing Sweden in Samara on Saturday, is not even the half of it. Never mind that this will be their most winnable quarter-final since Cameroon at Italia '90. Forget any questions about whether they would rather face Croatia or Russia in the Moscow semi-final next Wednesday. All that must wait, at least for a day or two. It will take some time to get over this.

Not just because England won on penalties, a draining 4-3 come-from-behind shootout that was its own drama, with its own arc of what felt like imminent failure before eventual rescue and triumph. This was their first shootout win since Euro '96, their first ever in a World Cup.

Eric Dier's winning kick, skipping past the desperate hand of David Ospina, will be an immortal moment in English football history. So should Jordan Pickford's save from Carlos Bacca that came just before it.

Gareth Southgate loves to talk about how this new generation are free from the mental scars of the old lot, and should not be burdened with the old failures of the past.

None of these players were at Bloemfontein or Gelsenkirchen or Shizuoka or Saint Etienne. That is English history but it is not their history and they are not tied to it. And to see Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Kieran Trippier and Dier bury their kicks like this, in front of 40,000 screaming Colombian fans, with a place in the quarter-final on the line, suggests Southgate might be right.

But the importance, the thrill and above all the unlikelihood of this shootout win is not all just about historical context and historical baggage. It is because of what happened three minutes into five added on of normal time, long before Dier's goal, Pickford's save or any of extra-time. Because England suffered a trauma that looked to have floored them.

They were 1-0 up from Kane's penalty early in the second half. They were digging in and hanging on, but they were two minutes away from a win that would have been hailed as mature, professional and tiringly hard-won.

They were so close that everyone here at Spartak Stadium and back home started to visualise about Sweden, Samara and beyond. Not out of arrogance. That is just what people do when they can nearly touch something they want, when they get that close.

But Yerry Mina's towering header up, down and back up again woke England up from those dreams like a cold bucket of water in the middle of the night.

Trippier and Pickford, two heroes of the shootout, collided on the line. Neither was able to clear the ball. By himself, each of them might have been able to. It is easy to say this now in the aftermath of victory but at the time it felt like the worst possible thing to happen to this young England team, a new mental scar for a new England era.

And in extra-time, England had looked utterly shot, unable to raise themselves from the canvas. In the first half of it, the Three Lions barely touched the ball as Colombia flinged crosses into the box. With better finishing, Colombia would have killed them off. England would be out and Southgate would be giving his post-mortem press conference in Repino this lunch-time.

It was all so different from the start of the game, back when this England team were attacking Colombia with an energy that was knocked out of them over the course of a draining match. In the first half, England kept attacking but kept coming up against the muscular wall of centre-backs Mina and Davinson Sanchez, protected by Wilmar Barrios and Carlos Sanchez patrolling in front of them.

The first half was the same clip on repeat: England gallantly trying to pick their way forward before being flattened as soon as they posed a threat. Barrios cleaned out Raheem Sterling once and, sensing that American referee Mark Geiger would let things go, headbutted Jordan Henderson in the face in a free-kick wall. He was only booked.

Eventually the referee saw it England's way. With Henderson, John Stones, Harry Maguire and Kane lined up to attack a corner, the Colombian defence grabbed hold as if they watched the video of the Panama game and taken it as an example of best practice. As Kane tried to escape around the back, Carlos Sanchez tried to rugby-tackle him from behind and this time Geiger pointed to the spot. Despite three and a half minutes of pushing, squabbling, complaining and delaying, Kane stayed impervious to all of this. He beat Ospina from the spot for the first time of the night.

Colombia had to respond and they threw on Bacca to go 4-4-2, giving them a physical presence that Radamel Falcao could not.

And the game entered a familiar phase, the slow English retreat, when 1-0 up in a big game, hoping that the clock will save them before they have to save themselves. It could have worked, and when Jesse Lingard was tripped by Davinson Sanchez, England might have had a second penalty.

But that second goal never came and Bacca was starting to drag Colombia up the pitch with him. He stole the ball off Kyle Walker and set up Juan Cuadrado, who should have done better.

Jose Pekerman gambled again, throwing on Mateus Uribe. Anything just to add a little bit of spark. Uribe pulled out a 30-yard dipping shot, Pickford had to scramble to his left to keep it out.

It felt like disaster had been averted, but in fact it had only been delayed. Mina got up highest at the corner - the one set-piece England had lost all night - and headed down into the ground. The ball bounced painfully back up, Trippier and Pickford both went for it, and neither stopped its gradual rise up and into the net.

How do you get over something like that? Especially when you have so little experience of anything like it in the game. So maybe it should be no surprise that they emerged for extra-time looking like everything good about them in this World Cup so far, their energy, their fun, their bravery, their freedom, had drained out of them.

They managed to limp through extra-time, and only when Dier could have won the game with a header from a corner did they look alive, for their first time in almost an hour. It felt as if their moment had passed again, when the penalties began in front of the Colombian crowd.

But neither Dier nor England had to wait long for a moment they longed for but could surely not have expected.

Belfast Telegraph

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