World Cup 2018: Are England the new favourites to reach the final?
As the Russian skipper Igor Akinfeev saved the last penalty against Spain, it would have sent a wave of celebrations across England as well. With Spain crashing out of the World Cup, England suddenly find themselves, in a rather unfamiliar territory, amongst the favourites to reach the World Cup final.
They will come up against Columbia on 03 July who may be without their star player James Rodriguez. The 2014 Golden Boot Winner is doubtful of making an appearance after he missed training on Friday and may not be able to play the full 90 minutes against the Three Lions.
Reaping the advantage of finishing second in the group
While England’s final group game against Belgium was insignificant in some ways since both teams had already qualified by then, some Belgian fans would surely envy the Englishmen's position. Should England get the better of Columbia, they will face either Sweden or Switzerland in the quarter-finals.
Although the Swiss side are ranked 6th in the world, six places above England, Harry Kane & Co would be considered as favourites to progress, particularly with their star striker in red-hot form.
At the cost of being slightly speculative now, although certainly not impossible, England could come up against Russia or Croatia in the semi-finals. Once again, Gareth Southgate’s men would be considered the favourites to beat them and progress to the final. But do they really have a good chance of doing that?
England’s best chance of reaching the final?
After a dismal showing at the 2014 World Cup when they were knocked out in the group stage, the expectations from the current English side were probably the lowest. This also relates to the fact their squad is the second youngest at the World Cup with the average age of 26 years.
Their manager, Gareth Southgate, is also rather inexperienced as he has only managed Middlesbrough and England U-21 prior to taking up the current job.
But the English quickly came out of their blocks in their opening game against Tunisia. There were long spells of impressive attacking moves involving fluid movements by the young talents like Sterling, Lingard and Dele Alli. The final score (2-1) was not a flattering one but it perhaps does not reflect the true state of affairs on the pitch.
This was followed by a 6-1 thrashing of Panama which saw Harry Kane steal a hat-trick and enter the history books for being only the third Englishman to score a hat-trick at a World Cup.
The final group game saw them lose out 1-0 to Belgium but none of the fans would be complaining now surely for it has presented to England their best chance in recent times of reaching the World Cup final!
But they must not repeat their old mistakes
England players are famous for going missing in the big games at the World Cup and have not progressed beyond the quarterfinals in the last six editions of the World Cup. While their performances so far have been positive, there appear to be several weaknesses in the current England team.
Starting at the back, Harry Maguire has been solid at set pieces but does not look very convincing in a back three. He has lost the ball on several occasions in the group games and such mistakes may prove to be costly at the knockout stage.
Gareth Southgate will do well to rectify this flaw in his team and may even consider replacing Maguire with the experienced Gary Cahill or even Phil Jones.
Going forward, England will need Raheem Sterling to capitalise on the chances he is getting in front of the goal. The Manchester City forward scored 23 goals for his club this season but has only 2 goals to his name for England in 40 caps, with the last one coming in 2015.
He has been culpable of missing easy chances for even Manchester City, including the one at home against Manchester United which could have killed off the game even before half-time. The 23-year-old forward will have to start scoring more often for England cannot rely on just Harry Kane to get the goals if they are to progress.
Pressure, pressure and more pressure!
If England want to realise their dream of playing in the World Cup final, they will have to step up their game. They will face tougher opponents in high-pressure situations and they will have to bury home any chance they get to score a goal.
When the players took to the Volgograd Arena on 18th June against Tunisia, there was any hardly any pressure on them. However, the World Cup dynamics have changed significantly since.
Positive performances coupled with favourable fixtures mean that there will be expectations from England when they come up against Columbia. They now have something to lose considering they have a realistic chance of progressing to the final.
However, England have a long way to go at this World Cup and must remain focused. Having said that, Gareth Southgate might well enter the history books if he manages to lead the Three Lions to the final.
This World Cup is certainly full of surprises and that trend looks to continue. Can England defy all the odds and reach the final for only the second time in their history?
Match Details: Columbia vs England
Date: 03/07/2018, 11:30 PM IST
Venue: Otkrytiye Arena, Moscow
Key Players: Radamel Falcao, James Rodriguez and Juan Quintero (Columbia). Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard (England)
Injury doubts: James Rodriguez (Columbia)
Past meeting: England 2-0 Columbia (1998 World Cup, group stages)