MOSCOW: For all the talk about England’s progress under Gareth Southgate, his youthful side have yet to be truly examined in this World Cup but Tuesday’s last 16 opponents Colombia will certainly ask the right questions.
With or without their talented number 10 James Rodriguez, the South American possess plenty of talent and their run to the quarter-finals in Brazil four years ago showed they are capable of something England haven’t managed in 12 years — winning in the knockout stage.
England qualified from Group G thanks to wins over Tunisia and Panama and with their place booked they fielded a second-string side in their 1-0 defeat to a similarly weakened Belgium in a strange final group game that neither side showed much desire to win.
The ‘prize’ for finishing second in the group, was to be in the easier half of the draw but all the talk of a ‘path’ to the final risks under-estimating the difficulty of their immediate obstacle.
Rodriguez, whose involvement is questionable as he is suffering from swelling in his leg, was the Golden Boot winner in 2014 with six goals and before his fitness problems was showing signs of that form again.
Radamel Falcao’s failure to make a strong impact in the Premier League during spells with Manchester United and Chelsea, should not disguise the fact that he is a prolific finisher and a real threat.
Likewise winger Juan Cuadrado’s disappointment at Chelsea needs to be set against his impressive performances in Serie A for Juventus and his importance to Jose Pekerman’s Colombian side.
England right-back Kieran Trippier, who impressed so much in the opening two games, says the players are well aware of the challenge facing them.
“We have done a lot of work on them. When you look at the players they’ve got in the team and the way the qualified in their group as well, they’ve got some quality players and we need to be aware of that,” he said.
Trippier suggested England will continue with the approach they have shown so far in this tournament and indeed Southgate is expected to return to the line-up that he started with in the opener against Tunisia. It means Dele Alli should be back in his supporting role to five-goal striker Harry Kane at the expense of Ruben Loftus-Cheek.
Colombia defensive midfielder Carlos Sanchez expects a tight encounter.
“They have a lot of history and top players, but I am sure that we have the weapons. It is a match where we both have the same chances to continue in this World Cup. Colombia respects these opponents very much because they have shown they have great power, but we can also do a thing or two,” he said.
England will be also pinning on their young guns to improve on past record of failure in penalty shoot-outs.
Penalties have been the death of England at six of the last 12 major tournaments and in that time, they have won only once, against Spain at Euro ‘96.
Southgate’s playing career was defined by the shot he side-footed into the hands of Andreas Kopke as England then lost in the semi-finals at Wembley to Germany.
“I have had a couple of decades thinking it through,” Southgate said.
His experience has informed his own approach now as coach, with the possibility of penalties looming again.
Southgate was in the World Cup squad in 1998 under Glenn Hoddle, who believed shoot-outs were a lottery, impossible to replicate in training and therefore not worth any form of practice.
England duly lost to Argentina on spot-kicks and missed out on the quarter-finals.
If there is one thing Southgate has been determined to drill into the preparation of his players, it is that penalty shoot-outs are not decided by chance.
“It’s definitely not chance,” Marcus Rashford said from England’s training base in Repino. “It’s a skill and every skill takes time to learn and to perfect. It’s never a chance. It’s just about being able to perform it with pressure.”
England have been practising penalties since March. The players rehearse the walk from the halfway line as well as their shot. Southgate has deployed video analysts and psychometric testing to gauge his most reliable takers.
England’s goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has saved five out of 30 penalties faced during matches, a similar record to his two back-ups, Jack Butland, whose record is four from 25, and Nick Pope, who is three from 13.
Belgium’s Thibaut Courtois has suggested Pickford, at 1.85 metres tall, carries a disadvantage but Colombia’s stopper David Ospina is even smaller at 1.83 metres.
England might take heart too from Ospina’s record. In spot-kicks awarded during games, he has saved only three out of 38 and one in his last 15. In shoot-outs, he helped Colombia past Peru in the Copa America two years ago by blocking Miguel Trauco’s effort with his legs.
Kane, who slammed two penalties into the top corner against Panama, would certainly be one of the five, while Jamie Vardy, who takes them for Leicester, is an option off the bench. Jordan Henderson, Kieran Trippier and Kyle Walker could also be on Southgate’s list.
Published in Dawn, July 3rd, 2018