England claimed its first World Cup semifinal berth in 28 years as goals by Harry Maguire and Dele Alli powered a clinical 2-0 victory over Sweden on Saturday in Samara.
The young Three Lions, coming off a draining victory on penalties over Colombia, played the perfect opponent in terms of style of play to avoid suffering. England had a majority of the possession and kept Sweden under wraps for long portions of the contest.
When the Blagult did create scoring chances after a meek opening 45 minutes, England keeper Jordan Pickford was more than equal to the task as his heroics from the previous round created an aura of self-confidence and invincibility Sweden could not break.
Through to their first World Cup semifinals since 1990 in Italy and just their third overall, the Three Lions will face the winner of the Russia-Croatia match Wednesday in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow with a spot in the finals at stake.
For all the talk of how England would be better served about being in the weaker half of the draw by virtue of its loss to Belgium to cap group play, Gareth Southgate’s side was a deserved winner in Samara and is now surprisingly one win from a rematch in which the sides would play their first XI instead of their second with everything at stake as opposed to nothing.
Sweden was denied its first World Cup semifinal appearance since 1994, in large part due to a toothless offense that failed to find any space to navigate on the counter. The Blagult, who had done so well to get to this point — handing France its only loss in qualifying, placing ahead of the Netherlands in that group to claim a playoff spot, eliminating Italy in that two-legged clash to book a spot in Russia and then finishing atop a group that felled defending champion Germany — lacked quality on the ball and conceded twice after yielding the same amount of goals in their first four matches.
England’s mastery of set pieces continued with Maguire’s bullet header on the half-hour. The Leicester City defender rose above Emil Forsberg to meet Ashley Young’s corner from the left and powered his header from 12 yards into the lower left corner for his first international goal and England’s eighth off set pieces in Russia.
Alli’s close-range header in the 58th minute capped a sustained spell of pressure as an unhurried Jesse Lingard was able to pick out the Tottenham Hotspur attacking midfielder at the far post with a well-placed cross, and he put it over Robin Olsen’s gloves for his third international goal and first since qualifying against Malta in October 2016.
Pickford made three saves in the second half, none more important than the one in the 47th minute when he dove to his left and clawed out a downward header by Marcus Berg as Sweden tried to find its way back into the match for an equalizer. The Everton No. 1 also denied the Blagult a lifeline after Alli’s goal, diving to his right to parry a shot by Viktor Claesson in the 62nd minute.
Pickford preserved his clean sheet for all intents and purposes in the 72nd minute, tipping Berg’s shot from 12 yards over the bar.
Southgate kept his starting XI from the Colombia match as both Alli and Young were able to shake off knocks picked up against Los Cafeteros. It was an unsurprisingly cagey opening, with Sweden content to sit back and examine what England would do with the ball.
Alli created a half chance in the seventh minute when he picked Emil Krafth’s pocket on the left side, but his through ball trying to pick out Harry Kane was too far forward. Walker failed to test Robin Olsen with a 20-yard shot from the right in the 11th minute as the Sweden keeper caught it comfortably.
The Blagult had their first meaningful counter in the 13th minute, but Berg blazed well over from 25 yards.
Though his scoring drought continued and will be a talking point leading up to Wednesday’s semifinal, Raheem Sterling’s pace proved to be menacing to Sweden’s back line. A defensive lapse allowed Sterling to hare away through the midfield. He cut to his left and his dribble became a pass to Kane, who dragged his low shot from 20 yards wide of the left post in the 19th minute.
England had a penalty shout in the 23rd minute when Sterling banged a cross of Forsberg’s arm, but the Swedish midfielder had that right arm tucked and referee Bjorn Kuipers waved play on.
Walker took a sharp-angled shot on the right that Olsen comfortably smothered. Both teams were doing well to negate the other, with Sweden’s positioning allowing few threatening chances and England refusing to let the Blagult build any momentum when gaining possession on the counter.
Krafth — playing in the place of suspended right back Mikael Lustig — gave away the corner that led to Maguire’s goal with a headed clearance. England stayed on the front foot after taking the lead, working the ball wide on both flanks to let Young and Kieran Tripper pump in crosses.
Forsberg found a rare pocket of space on the left in the 42nd minute, but his right-footed cross went right to Pickford, complete with a comfortable bounce to make the catch.
Trippier came close to picking out Sterling over the top, but Sweden’s central defense was alert to the danger and hacked it clear. Sterling again latched onto a long ball — this time by Henderson — but Olsen got a hand to the ball when he tried to round the Sweden keeper. The Man City striker was able to get possession and tried for a second bite at the apple, but Granqvist had gotten back to deflect the shot over the line for a corner.
By the time Kuipers blew his whistle to end the first 45 minutes, the Three Lions had every reason to believe they would end their semifinal hoodoo considering they had conceded only one shot and allowed Sweden just one touch in their penalty area.
Sweden immediately started the second half with intent, but Pickford came up big with a powerful left-handed save as Berg towered over Young. Lingard earned England a corner on the right in the 57th minute when Krafth deflected his shot over the end line, but Trippier’s out-swinger was flicked out of the area.
The Three Lions continued to pin Sweden in its own third and Lingard’s perfect curling cross was met with a pinpoint header by Alli, a just reward for the sustained spell of pressure as Olsen was too late in sliding over. It was also the fifth headed goal of the tournament for England, two more than any other side.
Pickford then came up with his second big save, with Sweden putting together its best offensive moment of the match as Claesson started and ended the play with a shot off a layoff from Berg.
Janne Andersson’s double substitution in the 65th minute for the Blagult, introducing John Guidetti and Martin Olsson, failed to ignite Sweden’s offense as Pickford finished with his first clean sheet of the tournament.