- England have benefited from lots of good luck
- Good teams take advantage of good fortune
- A tired Croatia provide England with a chance to prove themselves
Circumstances, circumstances. In a cup competition, circumstances or “luck” have far greater bearing on a tournament’s outcome than they could ever really have in a league. How else to explain the possibility of Gareth Southgate joining Sir Alf Ramsay as a World Cup-winning manager?
Despite the hype – and understandable elation – in England, everything has, for one reason or another, fallen tidily into place for Southgate.
A very easy group containing two of the weakest teams in the entire competition meant England had no trouble qualifying for the second round. A convenient fixture list meant the only serious opposition in the group, Belgium, were also already through before they would have to be faced. An inviting Group H – the only group not to contain a traditional giant – would provide England’s last 16 opposition. You get the picture…
But like all teams whose numbers have finally come up, the luck continued. With Colombia emerging as knockout round opponents, James Rodriguez, the star of the last World Cup in Brazil, suffered a recurrence of a calf injury in the final group game with Senegal. England would not have to deal with the Bayern Munich schemer.
After that, like all good teams, England made its own luck. Winning the penalty shoot-out after Mateus Uribe handed back the initiative, showed that England could take full advantage of a reprieve. Dismissing Sweden in the quarter-final showed that they would also greedily take advantage of the total absence of world powers in their half of the draw. It wasn’t England’s fault that Germany and Spain imploded – but England were certainly going to capitalise.
The good news for Southgate is that their luck is still holding. Croatia, the only really genuine class side remaining in the field, once more made very hard work of eliminating an enthusiastic Russian side that gave their all to make the last eight. That the Croats also needed penalties to defeat Denmark augurs well for England.
Croatia must surely be exhausted now. Their two wins on penalties showed tremendous character and nerve. But there is surely an argument that if they were as good as some of their admirers suggest, then they are not really showing it in getting the job done. Denmark should have been beaten late in extra time until Luka Modric missed a penalty. Russia, similarly, should have been put away at that point of the quarter-final, but the Croats lost concentration and gave them an escape.
What are we to deduce from this? Croatia are gutsy but not ruthless. It was their inability to kill opponents off that took them to two needless shootouts. It was their ability to show great resolve in the face of enormous stress that got them through those ordeals. That stress must be taking a toll, though – and that’s England’s good luck.
That said, one thing is sure. The Croats will create far more chances than the moribund Swedes and negative Colombians did. England have needed goalkeeper Jordan Pickford in alert form up to now, but he’ll be properly tested against the Balkan side. Modric, Mario Mandzukic, and Ivan Perisic are far more creative than anything faced by Southgate up to now. Moreover, England’s biggest weakness is in midfield. Ivan Rakitic could make hay there, linking the play to release Modric.
Genuinely good teams take advantage of their good fortune. On Wednesday, we will find out if England are a genuinely good team.