France and Belgium booked their places in the World Cup semi-finals yesterday. Today, four more teams – England, Sweden, Croatia, and Russia – look to do the same, and avoid the huge disappointment being experienced by Uruguay and Brazil.
Both the opening goals in yesterday’s quarter-finals arrived from set pieces, which is great news for England, who have scored seven of their nine goals from dead ball situations.
Having overcome their penalty hoodoo against Colombia, Gareth Southgate’s men take on Sweden on a high.
The Three Lions achieved a record World Cup win against Panama, and made more history when they won their first ever World Cup penalty shootout in the Round of 16.
Victory against Sweden will land England in just their third World Cup semi-final, and their first since Paul Gascoigne’s tears at Italia ’90.
Aside from Jesse Lingard’s stunner and Harry Kane’s fortuitous deflected goal, England have been unable to score from open play.
But if it takes another penalty, or a corner, to defeat Sweden, Southgate will happily take it. However, it does raise the question of whether Marcus Rashford should be given an opportunity from the start.
Rashford’s directness and blistering pace makes him uncontainable when he’s on form. His goal from long-range against Costa Rica will be in Southgate’s thoughts, as England take on a team that will sit deep and look to play on the counter-attack.
If England’s path to the quarter-finals has been favourable, Sweden’s has been anything but. In their qualifying group they negotiated their way to second place, ahead of Holland, and behind France, who they beat 2-1 at home.
Then they overcame the four-time World Cup winners Italy over two-legs in a play-off, and prevailed from the group stages in Russia, ahead of the World Champions Germany.
This Swedish team is plucky, organised, very strong defensively and share an incredible collective work ethic. The one issue they have is scoring goals.
Their play-off against Italy was decided upon a deflected strike. Outside of that effort, they barely threatened Gianluigi Buffon’s goal.
In the Round of 16, it was another huge deflection that saw Janne Andersson’s team beat Switzerland. They also needed an Andreas Granqvist penalty to beat South Korea.
Aside from Ola Toivonen’s excellent finish against Germany, Sweden have really struggled to remain cool in front of goal, missing glorious chances by unfathomable margins.
The Russians pulled off an upset for the ages when the defeated Spain on penalties. After being thumped 3-0 against Uruguay, the host nation took the Swedish approach of defending in numbers, and hitting the opposition on the counter-attack.
As impressive as the hosts were, the loss for Spain was more of an indictment of their offensive play, which failed to supply their centre forward Diega Costa.
In Artem Dzyuba and Denis Cheryshev, they have two players on three-goals so far. When their chances arrive, they have the quality to finish them. But surely another shock victory against Croatia is not going to happen. Or will it?
Croatia looked superb in the groups, particularly against Argentina. But France also looked good against Argentina, maybe Lionel Messi’s team were just poor.
The Vatreni just scraped past Denmark on penalties, after Luka Modrić had failed from the spot at the end of extra time.
They should still be considered huge favourites to overcome Russia. Along with Modrić, they have Inter Milan’s Ivan Perisic, Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitić and Mario Mandžukić of Juventus to call on.