MOSCOW: A mostly meaningless final group game could end up defining England’s World Cup.
With two very different paths through the draw on offer and qualification in the bag, England coach Gareth Southgate rested players for the match against Belgium.
England lost 1-0 in a game where both teams only occasionally showed attacking intent, and that loss set up a second-round game against Colombia, but an easier path after that. Belgium got a Japanese team widely considered weaker, but a potential quarterfinal against Brazil.
Southgate has told his team not to think beyond the Colombia clash, reminding players that England hasn’t won a knockout game since beating Ecuador at the World Cup in 2006. The last-16 loss to Iceland at the 2016 European Championship helped give Southgate the support he needed to accelerate a rebuild of the England team and focus on younger players.
For Colombia the focus is on James Rodriguez, who went off injured during Colombia’s 1-0 win over Senegal on Thursday and missed training Friday and Saturday. A scan showed he has a swelling in his right calf ? though the Colombian football federation says the muscle is not torn. Coach Jose Pekerman has said he is “very concerned.”
“We have to be ready for whoever plays,” England midfielder Dele Alli said Saturday. “(Rodriguez) holds a threat and we’re aware of that, but they’ve got a great squad.”
If Colombia has to play without Rodriguez, that would mean an extra burden on players like winger Juan Cuadrado, who plays for Juventus, and midfielder Juan Quintero of River Plate. There’s also an understanding that depth could win Colombia the game.
“As this World Cup shows, matches are won by details,” midfielder Carlos Sanchez said Saturday. “There are teams that have world-class stars, but in the end they do not make the difference alone. It is the team which makes the difference.”
SPOTLIGHT ON KANE
England forward Harry Kane was the top scorer in the group stage with five goals, all against the weaker opposition of Tunisia and Panama. He’s made no secret of the fact he’d like to be the World Cup’s top scorer.
Standing in Kane’s way is his Tottenham Hotspur teammate Davinson Sanchez, likely to start at center-back for Colombia.
“Davinson’s a great player, a great guy as well,” Alli said. “It’s hard not to support him but, as players, there are no friendships on the pitch. We have to do our job and hope Harry will come out on top.”
Colombia is focused on trying to stop England at set pieces, since four of Kane’s five goals so far, and six of England’s eight in total, came from dead-ball situations. Southgate has been looking to other sports like basketball and American football for insights into how players can deceive the opposition during a free kick or corner.
ENGLAND’S PENALTY BLOCK
Whenever England plays a knockout game, the conversation back home inevitably turns to the team’s dismal record in penalty shootouts.
England has been eliminated on penalties at three World Cups ? the most of any team ? and three European Championships and has only ever won one competitive shootout, back in 1996 against Spain.
Southgate, who himself missed the deciding penalty in the 1996 European Championship semifinals, has embraced psychology as a key part of England’s preparation. As well as incorporating elements of play into even the duller parts of training, like a warm-down ? he had players racing inflatable unicorns in the pool ? the coach had players practicing penalties ahead of the Colombia game.
“We’re confident and looking to change things,” Alli said. “If I’m on the pitch, I want to take one. I’ll ask to try and take one.”
SWEDEN OR SWITZERLAND?
Whoever wins, England or Colombia, will consider they have a great shot of making the semifinals.
Either Sweden or Switzerland will be the quarterfinal opponent for the winner, which would give Colombian fans confidence of a first-ever semifinal appearance, while England would be bidding to reach its first semifinal since 1990.
TWO DECADES AGO
Colombia and England have played each other only once competitively, in the group stage of the 1998 World Cup.
Southgate was an unused substitute for that game, which England won 2-0 with goals from Darren Anderton and David Beckham before going out to Argentina in the next round.
For England fans of a certain age, the defining memory of Colombia is a 0-0 friendly draw in 1995, unremarkable but for Colombian goalkeeper Rene Higuita’s acrobatic “scorpion kick” save ? a front flip to kick the ball away with his heels while horizontal in the air. —AP