Samara (Russia) (AFP) – England reached their first World Cup semi-final since 1990 on Saturday, comfortably beating Sweden with goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli to set up a clash against either Russia or Croatia.
Gareth Southgate’s young team came into the match as firm favourites and had too much for the Swedes, although they were indebted to another fine performance from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in a 2-0 win.
Leicester defender Maguire headed in the opener from a corner on 30 minutes — England’s eighth goal from a set-piece at the World Cup — with Alli adding a second, also from a header, just before the hour.
Man-of-the-match Pickford made three outstanding saves to keep Sweden at bay, further burnishing a reputation that has grown throughout the tournament.
“It’s a great achievement for the team, we owed it to the fans back home who believed in us,” said Alli.
“It’s always nice to score, especially on occasions like this. It’s an amazing feeling to be going to a semi-final at a World Cup.”
The tournament’s leading goalscorer Harry Kane failed to find the net for the first time in the competition, but the England captain said confidence was high after posting the country’s best run at a major tournament since Euro ’96.
“We’re buzzing. We know there is still a big game ahead, but we’re feeling really good,” he said.
With no multiple winners left in the tournament after the exits on Friday of Brazil and Uruguay, it is one of the most wide-open World Cups of modern times and England will start to believe they can reach their first World Cup final since 1966, when they won the tournament at home.
As England basks in a long heatwave, life came to a standstill for the match, with fans watching the game on big screens at events up and down the country.
The party began with beer showers and chants of “Football’s Coming Home” — England’s unofficial football anthem written for the Euro ’96 tournament.
Prince William, the president of the Football Association, praised Southgate’s men.
“You wanted to make history @England and you are doing just that,” he tweeted. “This has been an incredible #WorldCup run and we’ve enjoyed every minute. You deserve this moment – Football’s Coming Home!”
Even if Southgate’s team reach the final, William will not attend the match because of Britain’s diplomatic boycott of the World Cup in Russia over a nerve agent attack in England this year.
– Russia charge –
In the later semi-final on Saturday, Russia take on Croatia in Sochi.
Widely written off, including by their own supporters, before the tournament began, the hosts know they now stand just two matches from the July 15 final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow.
An impressive Croatia outfit led by midfield lynchpins Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic stand in their way but coach Stanislav Cherchesov said his side were boosted by the support of President Vladimir Putin.
“President Putin called me before the (last-16) game with the Spanish and after,” said Cherchesov, who masterminded a win against Spain on penalties in the last 16.
“Of course when the president supports you, it makes us comfortable. The players know this and it is just an extra boost for us in terms of motivation.”
– Neymar anguish –
Neymar has expressed his anguish after Brazil’s 2-1 defeat by Belgium on Friday.
“I can say it is the saddest moment of my career, the pain is great because we knew we could get there, we know we had a chance to go far, to make history…. But it wasn’t to be this time,” he wrote in an Instagram post.
The disappointment follows Brazil’s humiliating 7-1 loss against Germany in the semi-finals four years ago, when they hosted the tournament.
They played that match without Neymar, who had been stretchered off in the quarter-final win over Colombia with a fractured vertebrae.
He came to Russia having only just returned from an operation on a fractured bone in his foot in early March.
“It is difficult to find the strength to want to go back out and play football, but I am certain that God will give me sufficient strength to face up to anything,” Neymar added.
“Very happy to be part of this team, I am proud of everyone. They interrupted our dream but they have not taken it from our heads or our hearts.”
Next up for Roberto Martinez’s Belgium is a mouthwatering semi-final with France, who comfortably beat a Uruguay side shorn of the injured Edinson Cavani to back up their thrilling victory against Argentina in the previous round.
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