KEIR RADNEDGE in RUSSIA — England, who came to the World Cup with the ambition of reaching at least the quarter-finals, have gone one step further and remain alive and dreaming.
Manager Gareth Southgate’s team are not the most exciting of the finalists in Russia but they played with a spirit, cohesion and point-by-point organisation to ensure that a duel against Croatia or hosts Russia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday had been hard-earned.
England thus emulated Sir Bobby Robson’s team, who last reached the semi-finals for the last time in Italy in 1990, by scoring a 2-0 victory over a Sweden team who worked valiantly but never matched England in terms of all-pitch vision.
That said, England owed victory not only to the goals of Harry Maguire in the first half and Dele Alli in the second but to two more sharp saves from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford at potentially crucial moments.
Alli, who offered his best game so far in the finals as well as his goal, said: “It’s a great achievement for the team. We owed it to the fans back home because we’ve seen how they’re supporting us.
“It’s always nice to score, especially on an occasion like this but personally I didn’t think it was one of my better games. It was a real graft out there. It was important we had belief in our game plan, dominating possession. It was important that we stuck to what we were doing and moved the ball quickly.”
England certainly managed to achieve that too quickly for Sweden to match once a soporific first half had been yanked into life with the opening goal on the halfhour.
Each side had recorded only one off-target shot apiece before England forced the first corner of the game. Ashley Young’s left-wing kick was placed perfectly towards a ruck of players where it ws headed home powerfully by advancing centre back Harry Maguire.
This was England’s 89th goal in 68 years at the finals and their eighth from a set piece out of 10 in five games thus far.
England wasted a magnificent chance to double their lead just before halftime. A superb through ball from Jordan Henderson founded Raheem Sterling unmarked and in the clear. Fortunately for Sweden keeper Robin Olsen reached a hand to deflect the ball and Sterling’s eventual shot was scrambled for a corner.
Sweden created another equalising opportunity immediately after the interbal but Berg’s downward header was pushed away brilliantly by ickford, diving to his left. It probed a doubly crcial save becausr England then extended their lead just before the hour.
A sustained spell of England pressure ended with Kieran Trippier pushing the ball back to Jesse Lingard whose angled lob was headed decisively home to Dele Alli at the far post.
Sweden were still not right out of it. Pickford saved sharply from Victor Claesson and then tipped a shot-on-the-turn from Berg over his crossbar.
Had the Swedes scored then the game could have taken a desperate turn for England, the third-youngest squad to come to Russia. But Maguire and John Stones were solid in the centre of defence, Trippier and Young were aggressively positive as wingbacks and Sterling was always an attacking nuisance for Sweden even if nothing ever quite came off for him.
Pickford, already the hero of the shootout victory over Colombia in the second round, said: “We knew it was going to be difficult, we knew we had to bring our A-game. Our fans are different class. We enjoy playing and when the fans are like that it makes us very relaxed.
“The last time England were in a semi-final was 1990 and I wasn’t born then. We can go and create our own history.”