England were eliminated by Croatia in the semi-finals of the World Cup. The Three Lions’ dream was over, but their journey to the final four captured the imagination of a nation. On reflection, however, did England perform as expected given their opposition? Was their run to the semi-final as impressive as first made out?
Manager Gareth Southgate took the plaudits for the part he played in getting England further than they’ve been since 1990, but should a side gain so much credit for winning just three of their seven games in the World Cup? The Three Lions only beat Sweden, Tunisia and Panama and failed to see past Colombia, Belgium (twice) and Croatia in normal time. It’s nothing special, is it?
England struck late in their opening group game with Tunisia, with Harry Kane sealing a 2-1 win at the death. While in control for the majority of the match, England couldn’t hold onto their early lead and were taken the distance by a side deemed considerably inferior.
They were more convincing against Panama, but the North America side were big underdogs to register a point on the board. Beating them wouldn’t earn England too many plaudits, even if Kane came away with a hat-trick. Southgate’s men were expected to win. Their first big test would always be against Belgium in the final group game.
Roberto Martinez’s men were fancied to go far at the World Cup and got the better of England when the two sides met – 1-0. Southgate had made changes to the first-team, but his side underperformed against Belgium. Qualification was already confirmed but going through in second place would have mean avoiding the pre-tournament favourites.
A Colombia side missing James Rodriguez awaited England in the last-16 and they still took the Three Lions to penalties. The South American side started strong, faded at the mid-point and ended strongly, scoring in the last minute after giving away a penalty in the 53rd minute. It took a penalty shootout to separate the sides, but things were easier in the quarter-final.
Sweden were no match for England and Southgate’s men won 2-0 without much trouble. Goals either side of half-time saw England into the semi-finals of the World Cup for the first time in 28 years, but Croatia proved to be no slouches.
Player-for-player, many will argue England are the better side, but Croatia were certain better coached. Despite falling behind minutes into the game, Zlatko Dalić’s men were calm and believed in their ability to get back into the match with a patient style of build-up play. They scored to take the game to extra time and found the net midway through the second-half of extra time to book their place in the final.
England’s tournament ended on a further sour note after losing to Belgium again without scoring in the third-place playoff – reminding supporters that the Three Lions may have finished fourth, but they aren’t the fourth-best nation.
There’s a trend with the games England won in normal time and the matches they didn’t. Getting to the semis is an achievement in itself, but was their journey so impressive given the results? Would England sides of the past also fall short?