GAMES 59 & 60


Sweden 0 – 2 England

It’s hard to describe what a national team doing well in a tournament means –especially when it’s unexpected. Forget the tits mobbing Ikea, or the knuckle-draggers who smashed up an ambulance, that’s just a distraction courtesy of the stupid. These people are arseholes doing what arseholes do and using football and booze as enablers. They are, to be clear, quite exceptional arseholes.

For everyone else who choses to get involved however, there’s a thrilling swell of goodwill building after a semi-final place went from being a possibility to a reality and with relative ease. This World Cup has brought a sense of unity to a country that has been riven in two and, although a temporary measure – like trying to fix the ice shelf with Elastoplast – at least it’s something positive. We’ve waited a while for that.

Now my hangover has subsided, I’m left with memories of a game that will, one way or another, end up being wallpapered over by Wednesday’s fixture. I can remember crying in my friend’s kitchen after 1990’s semi final loss to Germany, but couldn’t tell you where I watched us beat Cameroon 3 – 2.

I hope I do hold on to Saturday's memories no matter what happens in the next game, as the day was full of friends, children, good food, laughter and shouting – lots and lots of shouting. It was an afternoon full of confidence too, unusual when you have the occupational hazard of supporting England.

This team, while not perfect and certainly the underdogs when you consider the strength in depth of Belgium and France and the clinical capabilities of Croatia, play in a way that inspires this confidence. Yes, most of the goals have come from set plays, but does that really matter? A goal from a corner is still a goal, someone won that corner. Does it make any difference that Ashley young put the ball on to Harry Maguire’s head from the flag rather than the flank? 

And actually, open play looked OK against one of the tournament’s toughest back lines. Jordan Henderson’s beautiful lobbed pass to a sadly indecisive Sterling should have led to more and Lingard’s cool, casual chip towards Dele Alli saw his target in so much space that it would have almost been harder for him to miss.

Harry Maguire has been a revelation, as has Trippier, who created so many chances for the team. And although Sweden didn’t trouble England for huge swathes of the game, when they did, it took career-defining saves from Jordan Pickford to secure the tickets to Moscow.

They look decent. They look composed. They look like they’re having fun.

This could be about to get interesting.


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Russia 2 – 2 Croatia
           (3 – 4 on penalties)

I was on my feet when Fernandes equalized for Russia to make it 2 – 2 and almost guarantee penalties. “This could be it,” I thought. “Russia in the semi-finals!” I then thought about what sort of odds you would have been able to get at the beginning of the tournament, and made a mental note to look into the possibility of building a functioning time machine.

I’d been drinking, to be fair.

But what followed was, we now know, a penalty shootout with at least two of the most unfathomably awful penalties I have ever seen as Russia's nerve seemed to fall apart like a clown car in a quarry. What Fedor Smolov was thinking I do not know, but whatever it was, he telegraphed it to Danijel Subasic, who saved the weak shot with ease. Then hero turned zero, as Fernandes went low and wide to miss the target completely. The result was inevitable from that point on.

That Russia had taken the lead in this game, was extraordinary enough, Cheryshev scoring from outside the box meaning that he leaves the World Cup with an impressive tally of four goals and at least one nailed-on screamer at that. Twice as many as Neymar. Again, the odds must have been astronomical going in, but then it's been a World Cup of surprises. 

Not tonight however. Croatia didn’t take long to respond and, from that point on, it felt as though they had the upper hand, at least until that late Fernandes goal. At that point it seemed reasonable to assume Russia would have some momentum and, crucially, that Croatia would have to be made of fairly stern stuff to hold their nerve.

It seems they are. Heart-breaking stuff – even for the neutral.

Russia, you were ace. I’m sorry to see you go. With penalties like those, I’d much rather England were playing you.