England’s most important World Cup clash in two decades takes place on Saturday, as Gareth Southgate’s side prepare to face a Sweden team that – while offering up a stern test – represent passable opposition in the Three Lions’ mission to make just their third-ever semi-final in the competition.
England’s modest route through the knockout tree has inevitably elevated the optimism accompanying this young side, despite how difficult an obstacle Colombia proved to be last time out, but will the Three Lions take one step closer to bringing football home this summer, or could they be in store for a second consecutive exit from a major tournament at the hands of a Scandinavian underdog?
This week’s experts – Football FanCast’s very own Sam Preston and Editor-in-Chief James Jones – share their thoughts and predictions ahead of the World Cup quarter-final clash…
First things first. Before we even get onto what might unfold at 3pm on Saturday, there’s the elephant in the room to address – England’s first ever World Cup win via penalty shootout and only their second at international tournaments from a staggering eight attempts. It’s added to the narrative that this England team can write their own history rather than be bound to failure by their predecessors, even if they aren’t the most talented team at this summer’s tournament.
How did you feel after the penalty shootout and is football coming home?
James: “What a moment! It really did feel as though a huge weight had been lifted off our nation’s shoulders with that penalty shoot-out victory. It has always been our nemesis but we managed to avoid another visit to football hell and hopefully we’ve now banished those demons for good.
“I’m still doing my best to keep my expectations at bay but it’s very difficult given the kind of run we have to the final now. It’s the biggest chance of making the final we’ve had in living memory and I really hope we don’t mess it up now.”
Sam: “It was the best moment I’ve ever experienced as an England fan. I believed that this group of players and this manager were different before the tournament began but a last 16 defeat on penalties – worsened by the pain of that late Yerry Mina equaliser – would have been a crushing psychological blow. It would have reinforced the idea that no matter what England do, they are destined to bottle leads and miss penalties. That simply isn’t the case and the lads proved it against Colombia. Football, quite simply, is coming home.”
While the win against Colombia was undoubtedly a proud moment, not least because England showed such an impressive mental recovery in the second half of extra time after being completely shell-shocked by Mina’s late equaliser and then broke one of world football’s longest-standing hoodoos in the shootout, it wasn’t wholly convincing either. The Three Lions controlled the match yet struggled to convert that dominance into consistent chance creation, and could only score in normal time through a Harry Kane penalty.
Would you make any changes to the starting XI to improve England’s creativity?
Sam: “Southgate has most of his best creative forces already in the side so wholesale changes largely aren’t possible or even advisable. Dele Alli still looks unfit so I’d strongly consider bringing in Ruben Loftus-Cheek instead. The other switch I’d make – and I’ve been saying this throughout the tournament – is Danny Rose to come in for Ashley Young. The Manchester United man picked up a knock against Colombia, which makes it the ideal time to bring in Rose from the start.”
James: “I’d go with the same XI again. Consistency is key at this stage of the tournament and I think a lot of our lack of clear-cut chances against Colombia came down to a few nerves in the end. The players didn’t look nervous but that doesn’t mean they weren’t bricking it inside. Now they’ve tasted what it’s like to play in the knockout stages of a World Cup and win, they’ll be a lot more confident going into this game and will want to play with a little more freedom.”
While Sweden represent the least-fancied side still left in the tournament – even lower-ranked Russia have a huge home advantage – they can’t be taken lightly either. Their defensive record is nothing short of phenomenal, and at this World Cup they’ve shown ruthless efficiency at the other end, feeding off scraps and half-chances and simply willing the ball into the back of the net.
Who do you see as Sweden’s biggest threat and which England player will be key to limiting their influence?
James: “Sweden are very difficult to break down defensively and that’s a worry if England don’t improve in attack for this game. They’ve only conceded twice in four games at the World Cup so far, both against Germany, so it’s going to be a tough game for our attacking players. Centre-backs Andreas Granqvist and Victor Lindelof have been immense for the Swedes, so naturally, we’ll be looking at Jese Lingard, Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane to cause as much havoc as possible when going forward to try and unsettle them.”
Sam: “This is a typically workmanlike Sweden side but RB Leizpig’s Emil Forsberg adds a sprinkle of stardust. He does not get hugely involved in build-up play but springs forward well and fires plenty of shots on goal to help his side make the most of their limited share of possession. He netted the winner against Switzerland, too. Much has been made of Southgate’s use of Jordan Henderson as a sole holding midfielder as many fear that it leaves too much space in front of the defence. Forsberg will be looking to exploit that and it is up to the Liverpool captain to keep tabs on him.”
Where will this game be lost and won?
Sam: “Predicting the pattern of this game is fairly straight-forward. Sweden will sit back, be organised and attempt to hit England on the break when they do manage to pinch the ball. The longer we go without scoring, the more the Swedes’ confidence will grow, so it really is a case of scoring a goal as early as possible. Smash the game open and England should win with relative ease. Fail, or worse, give Sweden a lead to defend, and it could be an exceptionally long afternoon.”
James: “With Sweden’s defensive strengths in mind, it’s difficult to look past the importance of our new-found strength at set-pieces as an important area in which we should look to exploit. Sweden will be well drilled in this respect and will already know how we’ve strong we’ve become here, but we’ve already shown we can create something out of nothing in these situations.
“Aside from that, it’ll all be about patience again for England. Sweden aren’t massively gifted in attack so they’ll be expecting to use the counter-attack as a threat going forward, so they’ll be willing to let us have the ball more than them.”
And finally chaps, lets hear your score predictions…
James: “It’ll be tight. 1-0 to England, Harry Kane penalty. Golden Boot incoming. Football incoming. Semi-finals here we come.”
Sam: “I’d love a comfortable win to allow the country to relax on what threatens to be the booziest day since records began. However, it is the quarter-finals of the World Cup against a very well-organised side, so I can’t shake the feeling it will be a one-goal game. 1-0, with Raheem Sterling to finally silence his critics and England to close out the game more effectively than they did on Tuesday. It’s coming home.”