ONE MORE TO CRO
Croatia are all that stand between England and their first World Cup Final for 52 years
Gareth Southgate last night brought England’s semi-final stars down to earth – by insisting they still have lots to prove.
And the England manager challenged his players to show they’re worthy of the top four as Russia 2018 comes to its climax.
Goals from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli either side of half-time saw off stuf fy Sweden and booked their semi-final slot.
It’s the first time an English side have reached the last-four at a World Cup since Italia 1990.
It has taken Southgate just 23 games as England boss to walk in the footsteps of two managers who were knighted for their services to the game.
He has already matched England’s best tournament performance on foreign soil by reaching the last four, just like Sir Bobby Robson’s side in Italy.
His squad will now go home with a medal. But can it be gold?
Can they fol low in the footsteps of Sir Alf Ramsey and his legends of 1966?
Southgate said: “It is an incredible priv i lege to be England manager and to take the team this far.
“Knowing the people who have done it in the past I feel so proud to be in this position.
“I spoke to the players yesterday and said we need to be here for another week.
“We’re in a World Cup semifinal. Whether we are in the top four in the world is something we still have to prove, I think.
“We’re not the finished article. We don’t have renowned, worldclass players – yet.
“But we have young players who are brave and who have shown mental resilience.
“It is fairly easily my best day in coaching!
“But it isn’t about me. It’s about the whole group – and to be part of that group is very special.”
Southgate explained he’d had to prepare his players for a totally different style of game than they had faced against Colombia in their last-16 match.
He said: “To get through the two games in the past week we needed to show our spirit.
“It was a game I was concerned about earlier in the week because of the emotional and physical energy we had to exert against Colombia.
“We knew the game would be stop-start against Sweden.
“Defensively we dealt with most things well – and when we didn’t, our keeper was superb.
“We created opportunities in at tack even though the opposition made it difficult for us, and our football flowed well.”
Southgate admits one of his main jobs now will be managing the growing expectations of his country’s supporters.
He said: “It’s going to be a bit difficult. We are privileged to be here. We are here because of the players as well of the staff. We have senior pros that haven’t
played as much but have carried on with smiles on their faces.
“We are here because of them as well as the boys that have featured more.”
The truth is though, England will have to perform better than they did against Sweden to progress further.
The Swedes, who were without suspended Celt Mikael Lustig, looked a limited side – but not without a goal threat.
Three times they forced Three Lions keeper Jordan Pickford into making outstanding saves in the second-half and exposed some frailties in Southgate’s side.
After a pedestrian start, England took control and they should have been home and hosed by half-time.
The breakthrough came on the half-hour when Ashley Young illustrated why he is in the team at the age of 32 with a deliciously driven corner from the left.
When Maguire’s running leap took him high above Emi l For sberg , the defender nicknamed ‘Slabhead’ by Jamie Vardy used his nut to beat Robin Olsen with a violent finish.
Southgate has had his players working tirelessly on set-pieces in training – and this was the eighth set-piece England have scored from in Russia.
Raheem Sterling was a livewire again – but still looks punchless in front of goal.
His first sniff of a chance came when Kieran Trippier’s raking bal l dropped inv iting ly into his path but Victor Lindelof made a vital challenge.
Then, after a late offside flag ha d saved Ste r l ing the embarrassment of a dreadful miss, he was in on goal again.
This time Jordan Henderson was the provider with a cute first-time pass.
Sterling’s f irst touch was perfect but he hesitated fatally and the diving Olsen was able to nick the ball off his toes before Andreas Granqvist cleared.
England were almost made to pay two minutes after the restart when Marcus Berg climbed above Young to connect with a powerful downward header that was brilliantly beaten out by Pickford.
The second goal came in the 58th minute when Jesse Lingard clipped a glorious cross from the right to the far post and Alli steamed in to bury his header from close range.
It took another sensational save from Pickford to keep out Viktor Claesson’s strike from 10 yards, Henderson throwing himself at the midf ielder’s follow- up effort to keep the Swedes at bay.
And the Everton keeper excelled again when Berg found space and time to lash in a shot on the turn.
Only Pickford’s f ingertips prevented the ball from finding the roof of the net.
The keeper has been desperate to keep a clean-sheet at the World Cup and he fully deserved to keep Sweden out with a faultless display of goalkeeping.
ALLI ATTACK Dele heads home from close range DELE DANCE his Alli watches header squirm past the keeper