Shearer, Platt, Pearce, Gascoigne, Sheringham: Five players who took the perfect penalty.
Normally enough to see a country into the next round of a major competition, but not against the Germans at Wembley in Euro ’96.
How fitting then, that the last ball to be kicked by an England player in the semi-finals of a major tournament was by Gareth Southgate, when he struck England’s sixth penalty low, hard but middle-left of the goal, into the palms of Andreas Köpke, denying England an historic place in the final, on the hallowed Wembley Turf.
That Southgate had the character to step forward and take the first penalty in ‘sudden death’, comes as no surprise now, as we’ve watched him fearlessly lead his England squad through to the Semi-Finals of the 2018 World Cup.
There’s no doubt that his penalty miss has haunted the England Manager throughout his career and no matter what the outcome on Thursday night, Gareth Southgate has found redemption and buried the ghosts of his England past, with his managerial performance in Russia.
Twenty-two years is a long time. It feels even longer for England fans who have witnessed penalty shootout losses to Argentina, Portugal (x2) and Italy, Group stage exits in 2000 and 2014, Lampard’s ghost goal and of course that toe-curling embarrassment of a loss to Iceland in 2016.
Having been through all of that, England fans will say they’ve earned the chance to watch their country play in the 2018 semi-finals, as well as the relatively smooth road they took to get there.
English brains will find it hard to compute the fact that England, under the governance of Gareth Southgate, have made it to the semi-final stage. Not because Southgate is at the helm, or because nothing big was expected of his young side before they set off on their Russian adventure, but because this is a new footballing experience for a vast number of spectators.
England fans find themselves in unknown, unfamiliar or unthought of territory. Many of whom will have no idea what it feels like to watch their country compete in a semi-final and the rest will be filled with excitement, seeing the three-lions being worn at the penultimate stage, after all this time.
It’s fair to say, that if England took the same fixture route as the 2006 or 2010 World Cups, then the chances are, they may already be back in Blighty, watching the remainder of the tournament from afar.
This though, is the point: They have not had the hardest route to the semis. This is no normal World Cup.
Southgate has repeated, time- after-time, that his England are starting from scratch; determined to control their own destinies and not let other people’s pasts dictate their futures.
This England side are playing in ‘the now’ and at this moment in time, they have a very real chance of winning the World Cup, for the first time in fifty-two years.
Croatia will not be as comfortable a game as Sweden and the quality of their opposition’s football will be far greater than Colombia’s.
With Modric, Mandžukić, Perišić, Rakitić and Kramarić in their side, Croatia will be the first proper outfit England come up against in the tournament; a fixture which we’d usually see in the last sixteen or quarter finals, but as it’s been repeated, time and time again, England have been lucky to avoid such ties, thus far. However, as far as semi-finals go, England still find themselves on the right side of the draw.
Although Croatia’s attacking arsenal is rightly held in high esteem, it is only ten months ago since Dejan Lovren was public enemy number one in England; the laughing stock of the Premier League for his calamitous defending and continuous errors. You’d be a fool to think this has slipped the minds of England’s tacticians and there’s no doubt they’ll look to exploit this chink in Croatia’s armour, especially at set pieces.
On paper, at least, it’s crucial to remember that this Croatia team is not of the same calibre as France or Belgium. More importantly though, it must be remembered that they failed to beat Denmark and Russia after one hundred and twenty minutes.
Not only does this highlight the fact that Zlatko Dalić ‘s side are no world beaters, but as many commentators have noted, fatigue may set in and play into England’s hands, which will have Marcus Rashford and Jamie Vardy licking their lips from the bench as the clock ticks towards the latter stages of the game.
England fans should also embrace the talents they have at their disposal. Harry Kane speaks for himself, the movement of Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard will cause the Croatian defence numerous problems and scoring against Sweden might also ignite the spark in Dele Alli, which we’ve seen plenty of times in the Premier League.
Any England fan will have bitten your hand off for a semi-final spot three weeks ago, regardless of the opposition. Now they are in Moscow, it’s time to see how far this team of cheeky chaps can go, as they continue to push their luck on the biggest of stages.
No matter what happens, Gareth Southgate has redeemed himself from ’96 (even if he didn’t need to) and his England side will return home as National Treasures. More importantly, England can play without fear of persecution upon their return; they can play liberally, express themselves on the ball and not dread the burden of penalties if that’s how the game is to be decided.
Against all the odds, if this wave of unprecedented confidence and progression continues, Gareth Southgate’s England team might just return home as World Cup winners.
Only two teams stand in their way.
Also published on Medium.