The sudden realisation that England have been handed their easiest route to a World Cup final in a lifetime has drastically escalated the level of expectation around Gareth Southgate’s young and promising side.
But before we all get carried away with drunken renditions of It’s Coming Home, there’s the not-so-small matter of England taking on Colombia in the first knockout round of Russia 2018.
The South Americans proved at the last World Cup that they have the attacking quality to defy the odds, so England certainly can’t take them lightly. But what are the Three Lions’ chances of progressing to the next round and how should they go about it?
Here’s everything you need to know ahead of Tuesday’s 7pm kickoff…
There’s little debating who history’s backing for this fixture. Colombia have never beaten England compared to the Three Lions’ three victories – including one in the incredibly short-lived Rous Cup – and they’ve reached the knockout phase of the competition on nine less occasions. Not that continuously reaching this stage has got England very far down the years.
Colombia’s FIFA ranking is lower than England’s as well, although there is some crucial experience amongst this squad. Juan Cuadrado, Juan Quintero, James Rodriguez, Carlos Sanchez and David Ospina were all key parts of the Colombia side that impressed so much at the 2014 World Cup, and Radamel Falcao is now involved too after missing the last tournament through injury.
While there will be plenty of potential match winners on the pitch for both sides on Tuesday night, the battle between England’s centre-forward and Colombia’s centre-half is difficult to ignore. Harry Kane is no doubt one of the best strikers in the world, if not the very best, but Davinson Sanchez is an incredibly promising young defender who also has the advantage of familiarity for Tuesday’s game – at club level, he’s been marking Kane every day on the training pitch for the last year.
Throw immense speed and power into the equation and Kane certainly won’t get past his Tottenham team-mate easily. Kane though, has shown at this World Cup how far predatory instincts alone can take him. Sanchez may be a great physical specimen, but few defenders in the world can keep up with Kane’s mental sharpness.
This is Mark Geiger’s second World Cup after becoming the first American to referee a knockout clash at Brazil 2014 and the former Maths teacher hailing out of New Jersey has already landed himself in some controversy, having allegedly asked for Cristiano Ronaldo’s shirt midway through Portugal’s Group Stage draw with Morocco.
On the pitch, Geiger’s remained largely cautious in terms of the big decisions, awarding only three yellow cards per game – despite Portugal and Morocco partaking in a particularly fiery contest – and still awaiting his first red card or penalty call. That certainly doesn’t mean the 43-year-old is a lenient referee though. A ranking of fourth for fouls per game from the 28 referees to work at the tournament this summer, suggests Geiger is due a big moment.
After almost completely changing his side for the 1-0 defeat to Belgium, Southgate looks set to revert back to the starting XI that he began the World Cup with in the 2-1 win over Tunisia. The real headline from that is the return of Dele Alli in midfield. The Tottenham star’s missed England’s last two games after suffering an injury in the opener, but will form a key creative hub with Manchester United’s Jesse Lingard and Manchester City’s Raheem Sterling.
The rest of this England side pretty much picks itself; the defenders are selected on technical ability as much as defensive quality, which should see Chelsea’s Gary Cahill and Manchester United’s Phil Jones come out of the team, Jordan Henderson has made the central midfield berth his own and Kane is inevitably the first name on the team sheet.
Perhaps the only point of contention is at left wing-back; Danny Rose made a strong case for himself against Belgium until allowing Adnan Januzaj to cut inside and score the only goal, so for that reason Ashley Young looks like to return to the flank at the Spurs man’s expense.