England reached the World Cup semi-final for the first time since Italia 90 as Harry Maguire and Dele Alli struck either side of the interval to beat Sweden in Samara.
Gareth Southgate’s side will now face Croatia in Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium on Wednesday after overcoming a stubborn Sweden challenge in this quarter-final, with help from a magnificent display by goalkeeper Jordan Pickford.
Maguire, outstanding once more, broke the deadlock on the half-hour when another England set-piece bore fruit – Leicester City’s powerful defender flashing a header past Sweden keeper Robin Olsen from Ashley Young’s corner.
Everton keeper Pickford then snuffed out Sweden’s hopes of recovery with a superb save from Marcus Berg, before England sealed their victory after 58 minutes when Alli headed in Jesse Lingard’s cross at the far post.
Pickford denied Viktor Claesson and then Berg one more time to secure his first World Cup clean sheet as England closed out this landmark win with something to spare.
Southgate and his England players repeated the scenes from the dramatic penalty shootout win over Colombia as they celebrated in front of joyous supporters at the final whistle – one step closer to history and with expectation levels raised once more as they stand one game away from football’s greatest occasion.
The Three Lions are in the last four for only the third time. They went on to win their home tournament in 1966 but lost to West Germany on penalties in 1990.
But the peculiar way this World Cup has shaped up means they will now play the team ranked 20th or 70th in the world for a place in the final – against either Belgium or France.
England lay down a marker
England not only reached the World Cup semi-finals for the first time since Italia 90, they did the job under the pressure of the occasion and the requirement to back up the victory over Colombia on penalties in the last 16 – with all of the mental toll that will have taken.
It was not the perfect performance by any means. They started sluggishly and surely gave goalkeeper Pickford far too much work to do for Southgate’s liking in the second half.
On this day, with expectation rising and the unmistakable feeling around this sweeping Samara Stadium that the World Cup is really reaching the business end, England delivered.
Southgate will, of course, want those flaws addressed – but when the World Cup reaches the knockout stage it is the result that counts and England have now won two knockout games after failing to taste victory in one for 12 years.
They have fallen short on so many occasions that an England team who rises to the occasion are worthy of the highest praise.
England, for all the talk, knew they had this history to contend with and it is to the credit of the calm and measured Southgate that he has not only led the team with such confidence and composure, but he has now guided one of the most inexperienced squads here in Russia to the last four.
Southgate and England deserve huge credit – and now those expectation levels will rise even more.
Pickford and Maguire come of age
Maguire and goalkeeper Pickford both had occasional moments of uncertainty early in this World Cup as they understandably took a little time to adjust to the unique pressures of this showpiece.
Since the knockout phase began, Everton’s 24-year-old keeper and Leicester’s giant defender, 25, have been simply immense.
Maguire may be built in the old-fashioned mould, but he is also a player with the sort of ambition and power Southgate loves in the three-man defensive system he settled on.
And it was Maguire who gave England the control they needed in Samara when he met Young’s corner and powered a header past Robin Olsen on the half-hour.
That was the eighth set-piece England have scored from in Russia and summed up the centre-back’s recent performances.
As for Pickford, he just carried on from where he left off after that magnificent penalty save from Carlos Bacca in the shootout win over Colombia.
England needed to beware any sort of Sweden revival at the start of the second half and it was Pickford who ensured they were not given a lifeline with a supreme one-handed saves from Berg’s header and Claesson’s shot.
Pickford has been desperate to keep a clean sheet at this World Cup and he fully deserved to keep Sweden out with a faultless display of goalkeeping.
This was the day Maguire and Pickford proved they have come of age with England.
Alli makes his mark at last
Alli has struggled for fitness and form in Russia but there has never been any doubt he possesses that touch of class and the goalscorer’s instinct that can make the crucial difference.
There was speculation Southgate might even make the conservative move of replacing Alli, who missed the games against Panama and Belgium after suffering a thigh injury against Tunisia, with his Tottenham team-mate Eric Dier – but the manager was full of praise for the player pre-match and kept faith.
Southgate underlined Alli’s selfless work without the ball and team ethic against Colombia and said it was now up to his England team-mates to deliver service that would allow him to do damage with trademark late runs into the penalty area.
In reality, Alli still struggled to make an impact for long spells on Saturday, but the moment Southgate had been waiting for arrived just before the hour when he was on the end of Lingard’s clever lofted cross to head past Olsen.
England and Southgate will want this to be lift-off for a player who can offer so much.
Can England dare to dream?
England will now face Croatia in the semi-finals – and anything is possible at this stage of any competition.
Southgate’s side face a tough task in Moscow on Wednesday (19:00 BST kick-off), but there is genuine momentum behind England and every win will only increase the quiet confidence that has built up around this squad since they arrived at their base in Repino almost a month ago.
The favourites will come from the other side of the draw, where Belgium meet France in the other semi-final – but this has been an unpredictable World Cup.
Who says England cannot be the team to overturn the odds once more?
‘England are good enough to win the World Cup’ – manager quotes
England boss Gareth Southgate told BBC One: “We knew it was going to be such a different game from the other night, to come back having had extra-time and penalties, with the emotions of it to lift ourselves through a completely different test.
“It was always a scrappy game where we had to withstand a lot of physical pressure, but the resilience of the team and togetherness of the team was crucial.
“I can’t speak highly enough of the whole squad and whole group of staff because it is so united in there.
“The level of work has been great and their commitment to each other, you don’t get through with just 11 players. They are all top people and are the reason we are in the semi-final just as much as any other.”
Sweden coach Janne Andersson: “I don’t think anything went wrong. We faced a good opponent and we did not get to our best level. The margins were small.
“The first 30 minutes we were under control until the corner and they scored. We then created chances at the start of the second half and if we had scored it would have revived the game.
“England are absolutely good enough to win the World Cup. They are forceful and well organised. Congratulations to both the team and the coach. They are a good side, who did not give a lot of openings.”
Man of the match – Jordan Pickford (England)
Match stats – Alli is second youngest scorer
- The eight goals England have scored from set-pieces is the most by a team at a World Cup since Portugal in 1966 (also eight).
- Sweden have lost three of their past four matches against England, a run which follows 12 consecutive games without defeat against them between 1979 and 2006.
- Six of England’s last 11 goals against Sweden have been scored via headers, all from different players (Sol Campbell, Steven Gerrard, Gareth Barry, Andy Carroll, Maguire and Alli).
- England – who scored with both shots on target on Saturday – have found the net with 10 of their past 13 shots on target at this World Cup.
- England have now scored 11 goals in a World Cup for only the second time, also doing so in their victorious year of 1966.
- Alli is the second youngest player to score for England at the World Cup (22 years and 87 days), behind only Michael Owen (18 years and 190 days against Romania in 1998).
- Maguire became the first player to score their first England goal in a World Cup knockout match since Rio Ferdinand in 2002 against Denmark.
- Pickford made three saves in this match and became the youngest England goalkeeper to keep a clean sheet in a World Cup match (24 years and 122 days).