Saint Petersburg (AFP) – Twenty-two years after Gareth Southgate missed at Euro ’96, England’s coach watched as his team beat Colombia on penalties to reach the World Cup’s quarter-finals.
When Eric Dier’s shot feathered David Ospina’s right hand before nestling in the bottom corner, Southgate arched back in relief and exhaled to the Moscow sky.
After wriggling free from the swathes of England tracksuits, he celebrated by hugging his family in the stands of the Spartak Stadium. This one meant a lot.
He may not have made the long walk from the halfway line but in many ways this was Southgate’s triumph, his emphasis on practise and detail coming to fruition at the end of an excruciating night.
“We have practised enough, we have been through a process and we were in control of that,” Southgate said.
“I felt so confident in the players, even after the first one was saved, because we knew we would save one of theirs.”
England had lost six out of seven times when taken to shootouts at major tournaments, the second of those at Wembley when Southgate sidefooted to Andreas Kopke and Germany advanced to the final of the European Championship on English soil.
When Jordan Henderson’s effort was palmed away, it looked like becoming seven out of eight.
But England finally broke the curse. Instead of resignation, there was a confidence in the shots of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford and Kieran Trippier that pointed to rehearsal and routine.
Finally, Dier stepped up after a patchy performance off the bench that might have persuaded others to look elsewhere.
But Southgate’s list included an analysis of character as well as technique and in Dier, and probably Henderson too, he saw players brave enough to handle the pressure.
– Practice makes perfect –
This is what Southgate had said all along: penalties are not about chance but precision and percentages.
Kane, after all, was taking his fourth in two games, each one as convincing as the next. Rashford had never hit one in his senior career before but found the corner like a seasoned veteran. England had been rehearsing.
“We knew England in the past haven’t done great so it was nice to get that one off our back,” Kane said. “It will give us huge belief going forward.”
On the other side of the spot was Jordan Pickford, who had fielded criticism for failing to keep out Adnan Januzaj’s spectacular strike against Belgium last week.
Thibaut Courtois said Pickford’s lack of height, at 1.85 metres (6ft), represented a disadvantage but his save against Carlos Bacca was a turning point and at the finish, it was him at the bottom of the bundle of England shirts.
“We have been practising them for a while now and the manager picked the five that he wanted,” Henderson said.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t score but the other lads were brilliant, especially Jordan for making the save and Eric handing us the win.”
After the joy, Southgate was asked if the victory had finally lifted the painful memories of his own miss at Wembley more than two decades ago — it had not.
“It will never be off my back. It is something that will live with me forever,” he said.
England must now re-set ahead of Saturday’s match in Samara against Sweden, who will have been delighted to see the likes of Kyle Walker hobbling off in extra-time.
The Netherlands and Italy both fell to the Swedes in qualifying while Mexico and Germany each finished beneath them in Group F, before Switzerland were beaten 1-0 in the last 16 earlier on Tuesday. The Swedes should not be underestimated.
England, it should be remembered, were also far from perfect. There was a nervousness in the last 10 minutes when they suddenly dropped deeper and their passes became more frantic.
But for all that, it cannot be ignored what this win will do for England’s momentum and their morale.
Above all, it offers Southgate’s side the best chance of making a major final in a generation. Their best chance since Euro ’96.
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