Saint Petersburg (AFP) – He may be small in stature, but Jordan Pickford is making a big name for himself at the World Cup as the Everton goalkeeper produced three stunning saves against Sweden to help England reach the semi-finals for the first time in 28 years.
In just his eighth international appearance, Pickford became the youngest English goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet at the World Cup by flying left and right to deny Marcus Berg and Viktor Claesson before showing his agility by tipping another rising Berg effort over.
For a match England largely controlled in winning 2-0, the fact Pickford was named man-of-the-match underlined his contribution to ensuring the Three Lions are still involved in the closing stages.
It has been a whirlwind week for the 24-year-old after his save from Colombia’s Carlos Bacca on Tuesday helped England win a World Cup penalty shootout for the first time.
“This is what football’s all about, being on the big stage,” said Pickford. “I don’t put myself under any pressure, I embrace the moment and play in the moment.
“Nothing fazes me, the pitch is always going to be the same, same lines, same goal height, it’s just a game of football.”
Peter Shilton, England’s goalkeeper the last time they made the last four, at the 1990 World Cup in Italy, was among those impressed at not just Pickford’s shot stopping, but his character in bellowing instructions to his defence at every opportunity.
“He makes three great saves to help England to historical semi-final place!” Shilton tweeted. “Love his shouting at the defence to organise and motivate them!”
The likes of Shilton, Gordan Banks or David Seaman would have been proud of Pickford’s display.
– ‘Modern goalkeeper’ –
Yet, for a country with a rich tradition of goalkeeping greats, there were huge doubts over who Gareth Southgate would select between the sticks in Russia.
Joe Hart started for Southgate in qualifying, but paid for his poor form in a season on loan at West Ham to miss out on the squad completely.
A big factor in Southgate’s decision to go for Pickford was not just his ability to make saves, but his distribution from the back.
In contrast to so many failures in major tournaments gone by, England have dominated possession in every match bar their final group game against Belgium when Southgate named a much-changed side.
“Pickford’s distribution was superb and his save with 20 minutes to go crucial,” said Southgate. “He is the prototype of what the modern goalkeeper should be.”
For one so young, Pickford has also shown impressive mental strength to bounce back in style from criticism for his part in Adnan Januzaj’s goal that handed Belgium a 1-0 win to top Group G.
Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois appeared to question Pickford’s height for a top class goalkeeper at 6ft 1ins (1.85 metres) tall. But the giant Chelsea stopper later clarified that he too is a big fan of Pickford.
“I never mocked his height, he is a great goalkeeper. I want to make that clear,” Courtois said after his own stellar performance against Brazil helped Belgium reach the semi-finals.
“I would never do that to another goalkeeper I just meant that being 15 centimetres taller, I would have got the ball,” Courtois said.
What Pickford lacks in height, he makes up for in spring and speed around his goal.
Lost among the drama of the tense clash with Colombia was arguably the save of the tournament from Mateus Uribe’s blistering long-range effort seconds before the South Americans’ stoppage-time equaliser.
“I don’t care if I’m not the biggest keeper,” said Pickford afterwards. “I’ve got that power and agility to get around the goal. I’m very good at it.”
Sweden found out just how good as England march on back to Moscow for Wednesday’s semi-final.
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