England have reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since 1990 after defeating Sweden 2-0 in the third quarter-final of Russia 2018. The unexpected success of this young English team has sparked excitement in fans all across the world, and a fresh hope that football is, indeed, coming home.
Sweden were confident going into the game after their Round of 16 victory over Switzerland. They had certainly exceeded expectations, considering their pre-World Cup form. Despite overcoming Italy in the playoffs, their preparation for the tournament was poor. Although they did manage to make it to the quarterfinals, their main problem was scoring goals from open play. Out of the 6 goals they’ve scored, 4 of them were from set-pieces. For England, well they had no problem scoring goals, whether from open play or set-pieces. Harry Kane’s penalty against Colombia in the previous round was their 10th goal in the tournament. The last time they scored 10+ goals in a World Cup, they won it (11 in 1966). Given the two teams’ recent World Cup record (1-1 in 2002 and 2-2 in 2006), we were in to expect a close game.
As expected, the game began in a sticky fashion with both teams trying to feel out each other before they make any serious threat towards goals. We all knew that they were both very clinical from set-pieces, and that set-pieces would be vital in a game like this. Well, England utilized it. Harry Maguire opened the scoring in the 30th minute with a powerful header from Ashley Young’s corner. If one Harry doesn’t score, the other one will, huh? That was the Leicester City defender’s first goal in England colours, and what an occasion it was to get it. Raheem Sterling had a chance to double England’s lead on the verge of half-time, but he fluffed his lines, as well as the rebound. England lead 1-0 at the break.
England have scored a tournament-high four goals from headers this World Cup. The last time a team scored more in one WC tournament was Germany in 2002.
MALICIOUS MAIDEN GOAL
Harry Maguire is just the second England player to have scored his first international goal in the quarter-finals, semi-finals or the final of a World Cup since Alan Mullery (1970 against Germany).
It was more of the same in the second half as Sweden provided very little going forward and England tried to play their way through the Swedes rather than using the avenues out wide. They’d come to reap their harvest in the 59′ when Dele Alli latched on the Lingard’s ball forward and headed home from 6 yards out. Typical Dele header, if you ask me. If you want two good examples, watch his two goals against Chelsea at White Hart Lane in January 2017.
Alli’s header, as well as some magnificent saves from Jordan Pickford, proved to be the killer blow the Sweden as they lost their momentum to search for an equalizer, and England held on to advance to their first semifinal since 1990. Is football really coming home?
In the last of the quarterfinals, the hosts were up against Croatia; beaming with confidence after their historic shootout victory against Spain in the previous round. Croatia themselves were at this stage due to a shootout win after defeating Denmark. After a tense first few minutes, Russia stormed in front through Denis Cherychev’s blaster from 20 yards out. That boosted his tally to 4. Only Harry Kane has more (6). Russia’s resilient backline would suffer from a moment of defensive indiscipline just moments later, though. Mario Fernandes was punished for stepping up too far as (the other Mario) Mandzukic exploited the space behind him and put in a wonderful ball for Kramaric in the box, and the #9 easily headed it past Akinfeev.
Denis Cherychev is now the second highest Russian World Cup scorer in a single tournament. Only Oleg Salenko scored more (6) in 1994; 5 of which came in one game (vs Cameroon)
Kramaric is the seventh different player to score for Croatia at this World Cup – only Belgium have had more names on the scoresheet (nine).
The game remained at 1-1 for the rest of regulation time and extra time was needed.
Russia’s World Cup campaign took a dent in the 101st minute though, as Domagoj Vida rose high above some extremely weary Russian defenders to head the ball into the low right corner. The Fisht Stadium grew silent with tears flowing from the faces of Russian fans everywhere. Their dream was slowly fading right before their eyes. But Russia have proven that they are a team hungry for success, and they were rewarded an equalizer from Mario Fernandes’ textbook header in the 115th minute. The Brazilian boy was here to save Russia on the day after Brazil were sent packing! What a moment it was for him; what a moment it was for Russia! And it was from yet another set-piece. Set-pieces seem to be the theme of this tournament. But their dream was alive again, and having won on penalties before, they were beaming for another shootout… and that’s exactly what they got as the game finished 2-2 after extra-time.
EXTRA TIME BLESSINGS
Vida’s header was not only the first goal scored in extra time at Russia 2018 but the first ever for Croatia in the additional 30 minutes at a World Cup.
Mario Fernandes’ goal in the 115th minute (114:11) is the latest goal Russia have ever scored in a World Cup match (including USSR).
Russia were set to kick first on the end of the stadium where the Russian fans inhabited. But their golden opening moment melted as Smolov’s extremely poor kick was saved by Subasic. It was truly dreadful. Inter Milan’s Brozovic then scored to put Croatia 1-0 up. Dzagoev stepped up for Russia’s second penalty and scored with then Kovacic denied by Akinfeev. 1-1 after two each. Fernandes, who got them to the shootout in the first place, was in line to take the next kick… and he missed! It seemed like Russia’s luck was finally coming to an end. Modric followed up to (barely!) score for Croatia and give them a 2-1 lead. The verteran Ignashevich had the responsibility to take Russia’s fourth penalty, and he coolly converted. But Vida ensured that Croatia kept their lead with the next penalty. From here, it was the point of no return. Russia had to score and hope Croatia missed. Kusiev kept the dream alive with a successful penalty, but Ivan Rakitic blasted the Croatians into the semifinal with no remorse for the hosts.
It was gutting to see Russia eliminated, but they’ve significantly exceeded all expectations. There is no shame in a home quarterfinal exit after what they’ve done in this World Cup. Truly incredible.
England and Croatia will meet for a place in the final on Wednesday. Is football coming home? Or will Croatia reach their first ever World Cup final? We can only hope that Russia 2018 brings magic to us once more, in any form or fashion. Bring on the semifinals!
Image Credit: FIFA™