Dele Alli and England are through to the World Cup semifinals. (Getty)
It’s another step closer to coming home. England, which won its last and only World Cup over 50 years ago, advanced to the 2018 semifinals with a 2-0 win over Sweden on Saturday in Samara.
Harry Maguire’s first-half goal and a Dele Alli strike early in the second were enough for the Three Lions to advance past the plucky, Zlatan Ibrahimovic-less Swedes and into the final four for the first time since 1990.
Who would bet against England at least reaching the final at this point? It’s not that manager Gareth Southgate’s team has been dominant, far from it, especially from the run of play. Maguire’s strike came off of an Ashley Young corner kick, the eighth set piece goal out of 11 total that England has scored in Russia.
Coming into the match, they had produced just 23 shots from open play, ranking 22nd out of the 32 teams in the competition according to TrueMedia stats guru Paul Carr. It was more or less the same on Saturday, even in a comfortable win that was all but sealed when Alli nodded in a perfect Jesse Lingard pass to the back post with more than 30 minutes to play:
Three Lions outshot Sweden 12-7, but the Swedes actually put more shots on target. England just managed to convert both of their attempts on goal.
And despite the score line, the outcome of the match could have been different had England goalkeeper Jordan Pickford not made a string of key saves over the final 45 minutes. Sweden came out flying immediately after the break, and striker Marcus Berg looked like he’d equalized off a towering header only for Pickford to paw the chance away:
He stopped another good shot from Berg again later on.
Still, England has every right to be confident. They fully deserve a place in the semis. The Three Lions didn’t get there because of luck. Even in finally snapping their streak of tournament-ending losses from the penalty spot in the Round of 16 thriller against Colombia, they were following a meticulous plan devised by Southgate and his staff.
That’s not to say the Three Lions haven’t been lucky at times. They have. But you also make your luck, and England has played as well as they’ve needed to. Southgate’s controversial decision to sit many of his starters — including captain Harry Kane — for the group stage finale loss to Belgium now looks like a masterstroke. There’s been a cultural shift within not only this squad, but Englands’ Football Association.
It’s not a coincidence that this particular England team is succeeding where its predecessors failed. This squad is a product of a new optimism surrounding the country’s national programs. England is already the reigning world champions at the Under-17 and U-20 levels. Southgate’s young guns weren’t really expected to compete for the title this summer as much as they were laying the groundwork in order to field a genuine challenger in 2022.
Yet here they are, just two games from bringing it home. What began as an almost tongue-in-cheek phrase borrowed from the corny official theme song of Euro ’96 has become a sincere rallying cry from a long-suffering fan base that suddenly, almost implausibly has World Cup glory in its sights.
Doug McIntyre covers soccer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @ByDougMcIntyre.
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