England v Colombia Preview: Ice... Ice... Baby?
England came into this tournament riding a wave of optimism built on foundations of pessimism. We were optimistic because this England team were only ever going to reach a quarter-final at the outside, but it looked like they would do so with verve, joy, honesty, hard-work, togetherness and any number of other adjectives you could sing about this England team (who you might have noticed, I quite like.)
Now though? Now there’s pressure. Pressure in the form of that list. Russia. Croatia. Sweden. Switzerland. England. Colombia. Pressure in the form of ancient history which says that England and Sweden are the traditional powerhouses left. Pressure in the form of recent history which suggests one of England, Croatia or Colombia should be in that final on July 15th.
There’s pressure too from their own performances. Winning ugly in the opener – “the mark of champions.” England’s biggest ever win on paper next up (the fact that it was against a poor Panama side who had to come out and try to win, forgotten.) A 1-0 defeat to Belgium in which only three starters played.
Pressure from the performances of individuals piles on as well. Ruben Loftus-Cheek has looked stronger, smarter and just plain better than everyone he’s played against so far. Harry Kane has five goals.
There doesn’t appear to be any attempt from Southgate or the players to play it down either. You sense they’re beginning to believe too. Just listen to them.
Henderson described this in an interview with ITV as ‘an opportunity to go on and go far in the tournament.’ Southgate, meanwhile, said about the possibility of england. winning. the. bloody. world. cup, ‘You always have to have dreams, aims, goals. We are in the business of bringing hope and excitement to a whole nation. As manager, of course, I have huge belief in what we’re doing. They are technically a very good group of players.’
Now, I could take that one sentence at a time, writing; Yes, but they are just those. No Gareth, you’re in the business of trying to win football matches. Bit Brent. ‘Technically’ potentially doing some heavy lifting there.
But I won’t do that. In-Gareth-we-trust.
Colombia are good though. And England have weaknesses.
James Rodriguez, who it looks like will play in some form and at some point, has spent his year quietly turning himself into one of the best creative midfielders in the game. Quintero too has the ability to pick England apart from a deeper position. Falcao might not be as explosive as he once was, but can still be clinical if given the chance. In Cuadrado Colombia also have an explosive creator down the flank.
Loftus-Cheek and Henderson will be absolutely crucial. If England can control the midfield they can nullify Rodriguez and Quintero. Cuadrado will threaten, and its why Young should start at left back. Danny Rose arguably gives England greater threat on the counter, but his relative inexperience and propensity for the kind of defensive error he made against Belgium count against him.
If Young, Loftus Cheek and Henderson can control Colombia’s creators then Falcao’s lack of mobility should be exposed, and England’s centre-backs comfortable. There are doubts about Walker’s positional ability as a centre-back, and while his recovery pace could be useful in other matches if England progress, Southgate should at least consider Gary Cahill, who looked solid against Belgium. If Walker starts, Falcao will surely find himself free at some point.
At the other end, England should be hopeful rather than fearful. Sanchez is a name and Yerry Mina is a unit, but Kane and Lingard have impressed, and it seems likely that the referee will be on the lookout for anything overly physical against Kane after his treatment by Panama and Tunisia. Whether Sterling or, if he plays, Dele Alli can recover the form they’ve shown for their clubs remains to be seen.
The battle will be won and lost in that midfield. That’s why Jordan Henderson’s comments worry me a bit. I hope I’m wrong. His performances so far are pretty much beyond reproach. But the last time he played, Germany and Spain were still in the tournament. Potential quarter-final opponents for England included Brazil. There’s more pressure now. England need to remain ice cool.
Far from wanting to put this team down, I want to relieve the pressure a bit. A quarter-final will now, after all the talk about football’s destination, be heart-breaking. But it won’t be a failure. I won’t hold it against this team or this manager or these players.
Ultimately, maybe it’ll be a player no longer in Russia who can help England win. Fabian Delph returning home to feed his wife curries while she waits to give birth is a story purer than a knuckled Ronaldo free-kick. Some things are bigger than football, England. Go and enjoy yourselves. In-Gareth-we-trust.