2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview — Newcastle United vs. Tottenham Hotspur

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

With three straight top-three finishes, a new stadium, and their star player signed to a new long-term contract, the future is bright at Tottenham Hotspur.

Yet a lack of reinforcements from the transfer window could loom large early as Spurs open their season for the second straight year at St James’ Park on Saturday against a Newcastle United squad again embroiled in self-inflicted turmoil.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

Tottenham (23-8-7 in 2017-18) had 12 players take part in the World Cup this summer, third-most in the top flight behind Manchester City (16) and Chelsea (14). Three Lilywhites – Kieran Trippier, Dele Alli and Harry Kane – were full-time starters for England while Eric Dier and Danny Rose made multiple starts as they reached the semifinals.

Additionally, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris backstopped France to their second World Cup title while centre backs Toby Alderweireld and Jan Vertonghen along with midfielder Mousa Dembele claimed third place with Belgium, who beat England twice. Christian Eriksen (Denmark) and Davinson Sanchez (Colombia) both progressed to the round of 16, with Sanchez losing to his English teammates.

Heung-min Son was the only Spurs player not to reach the knockout round, but his South Korea side sprung one of the biggest upsets in Russia by defeating 2014 champion Germany.

All these players are just returning to camp and coupled with dual-track responsibilities domestically and in Champions League, chairman Daniel Levy was curiously inactive as Spurs made zero personnel moves coming or going in the summer window. Levy made a late charge at Aston Villa midfielder Jack Grealish but was rebuffed by the Championship side as his £25 million offer was deemed insufficient by new ownership.

Levy, however, blew apart his carefully built wage scale for Kane, the Golden Boot winner in Russia with six goals as he signed a new six-year deal in June worth a reported £90 million only 11 months after putting pen to paper on his previous contract.

This new deal, worth £200,000 per week, recognizes the value of the 25-year-old striker who scored 79 goals in the last two seasons in all competitions, narrowly missed winning a third straight Premier League Golden Boot last spring, and is the face of English football as talisman of the Three Lions.

The other big contract was signing manager Mauricio Pochettino to a five-year extension worth over £40 million through 2023 in May, tying together the fates of star player and gaffer.

“Daniel and I have spoken at length about our aspirations for this football club,” Pochettino said at the time of his signing. “We both share the same philosophies to achieve long-term, sustainable success. This is a special club – we always strive to be creative in the way we work both on and off the pitch and will continue to stick to our principles in order to achieve the success this club deserves.”

Kane’s new deal raised eyebrows among his teammates, many of whom experienced difficult negotiations with Levy. Alderweireld was hoping Manchester United would pry him from White Hart Lane, and Rose expressed his desire last season to find his market value with his next deal at Spurs or elsewhere.

On the pitch, the 4-2-3-1 Pochettino prefers should see little change from last season, though Sanchez now occupies the centre back spot Alderweireld once held. Dier may have supplanted Victor Wanyama as a midfield partner with Dembele, and the attacking quartet of Kane, Alli, Eriksen and Son remains intact.

A higher-up not spending money is nothing new for Newcastle United manager Rafa Benitez, who has seemingly been at odds with club owner Mike Ashley since taking over the club in 2016. The Spaniard did yeoman’s work last season with what was essentially the same side that won promotion from the Championship in 2017 as the Magpies (12-8-18) finished 10th mainly on player graft and coaching guile – their 39 goals were second-fewest among top-10 clubs.

This summer, the soap opera renewed as Ashley again promised Benitez he would open the purse strings and never fully delivered. This created fresh enmity between owner and supporters, the latter of whom share a two-way street of adoration with Benitez and fearful he will quit St James’ Park after one empty promise too many.

The Toons made targeted moves this summer – centre back Fabian Schar, defensive midfielder Ki Sung-yueng and forward Yoshinori Muto all signed for a combined total of less than £13 million – and Ashley kept a hawk’s eye on the balance sheet as Newcastle off-loaded striker Aleksander Mitrovic to Fulham for £22 million.

Newcastle secured winger Kenedy on loan from Chelsea for a full season, and Benitez will work on Salomon Rondon as a reclamation project after being loaned from West Bromwich Albion in exchange for Dwight Gayle. The Magpies also signed keeper Martin Dubravka on a permanent deal after he arrived in January from Sparta Prague. Right before Thursday’s deadline, they added defender Federico Fernandez from Swansea City.

While friction between Benitez and Ashley is nothing new, the same holds true for players and owner. They boycotted “walk-up” media duties for broadcasters for one day due to a row over bonus payments Ashley promised from both the FA Cup and last season’s finish. It was resolved Wednesday, and captain Jamaal Lascelles is looking forward to leaving all the distractions behind.

“We’ve managed to sort the off-field stuff; now that’s out of the way, we don’t have any reason why we can’t go out and put on a good performance,” he told Newcastle’s official website. “Everybody looks sharp, we’re training hard and we’ve all got our heads in the right place.”

Benitez is counting on a standout season from midfielder Johnjo Shelvey, one of the league’s most creative yet mercurial playmakers. The 26-year-old nearly made England’s World Cup squad after heeding his manager’s call to be more under control – Shelvey was not disciplined the final 15 matches after being ejected twice in the first 13.

One of those red cards came in last season’s opener when he needlessly stamped on Alli’s ankle in the 48th minute and swung the match in Spurs’ favour. Alli would get the last laugh with the first goal just after the hour and Ben Davies added a second nine minutes later for a 2-0 win.

Tottenham did the double over Newcastle last season and have won three of their last four at St James’ Park.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Spurs are an even money favorite while a draw has 12/5 odds and a Newcastle victory has 14/5 odds. Tottenham and under 2.5 goals has a 17/5 return while the same over/under with a Newcastle victory returns 13/2 odds.

PREDICTION

There are some managers who know how to steal points in various places, and despite all the chaos surrounding Newcastle — even if the bonus payment is settled and even if Ashley is done spending his money on a new investment — this feels like an opportunity where Benitez’s shrewdness can pay off with three early points for Newcastle.

Shelvey is not going to make the same mistake he did last year and get sent off, which will be a huge plus for the Toons. Additionally, the ICC tour did not give Tottenham any benefits aside from giving most of the fringe side substantial playing time in contrast to Newcastle, which has spent the preseason drilling towards this match.

While the Magpies have not recorded a clean sheet at home versus Spurs since 2003, 13 matches ago, there is a sense they can pull that off here with a disciplined effort. I can’t give a reason or a goal-scorer for Newcastle, but just simply offer a hunch they will open the season with a victory by catching Spurs off-balance.

PREDICTION: NEWCASTLE UNITED 1, TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR 0

2018-19 EPL Team-by-team previews: Tottenham Hotspur (August 4)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 18th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page.)

TOTTENHAM HOTSPUR LILYWHITES

Manager: Mauricio Pochettino (Hire Date: May 27, 2014)
Tenure Length: 3rd/20 in Premier League and 8th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 23-8-7, 77 points, 3rd in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 74
2017-18 Goal Difference: plus-36
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League and/or First Division: 41 (including 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 1978
Last Relegation: 
1977 (First Division to Second Division)
2017-18 Champions League: Round of 16 (Juventus)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Fourth-round loss (West Ham United)
2017-18 FA Cup: Fourth-round loss (Manchester United)

2017/18 IN REVIEW

With renovations to expand White Hart Lane in full swing, Tottenham Hotspur used Wembley as its home pitch for the entire 2017-18 campaign. The Spurs started somewhat slowly at their new digs after opening the season with a 2-0 win at 10-man Newcastle United, losing to Chelsea in a London derby and drawing Burnley.

Mauricio Pochettino’s men righted the ship with a 3-0 romp at Everton as Kane had a brace to trigger a 10-match unbeaten run (8-2-0) that included wins in their first two Champions League matches and a well-earned 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu in a toe-to-toe encounter versus two-time holders Real Madrid. That match announced Spurs as a team to be reckoned with on the continent. Tottenham further burnished its credentials with a 4-1 pole-axing of Liverpool straightaway following that draw to solidify a hold on third in the table.

A surprising Carabao Cup exit at the hands of West Ham United followed, as did a 1-0 loss at Old Trafford to Manchester United, but Spurs hit a stunning high in the immediate match after, thrashing Real Madrid 3-1 to qualify for the knockout round of the Champions League with two matches to spare. A brace by Dele Alli on either side of halftime before a goal by Christian Eriksen sent Wembley into raptures, with command performances by Alli, Kane and Kieran Trippier earning deserved plaudits from supporters and pundits alike.

The easy motivation of Tuesday and Wednesday nights, though, gave away to patchy play on the weekends. Spurs were overrun 2-0 at Arsenal in the first north London derby, and a 1-1-3 stretch in league play could be overlooked when a win at APOEL confirmed Champions League group honours in early December.

A pair of victories over Stoke City and Brighton and Hove Albion followed, but Spurs took a needed dose of humility in a 4-1 hiding administered by Manchester City at the Etihad. For all of Alli’s otherworldly talent, his mercurial side got the better of him, and a stamp on Kevin De Bruyne with the game in the balance at 1-0 to the host enraged the usually placid Belgium international to the point he unleashed his wrath on all of Tottenham.

It was a lesson well-learned as Pochettino’s team would go 17 unbeaten (11-6-0) across all competitions after that defeat. The young London side drew battle-tested Juventus in the round of 16 for the Champions League, and after a dreadful start in which Spurs fell behind two before the clock had reached 10 minutes, they showed their mettle in Turin by fighting back for a draw. They also had the precious advantage of two away goals in their pocket for the return encounter courtesy Kane in the first half and Eriksen in the second.

There was a surprising FA Cup draw at Rochdale, forcing a replay that was part of three wins on the bounce before the rematch versus the Italian powerhouse. But youth would not be served in Wembley as a tactical switch on the hour by Max Allegri caught Spurs out, and goals by Gonzalo Higuain and Paulo Dybala less than three minutes apart powered Juventus to a 2-1 victory in the match and 4-3 on aggregate.

Tottenham, though, revealed plenty of character with four wins on the trot — all on the road — highlighted by its first league win at Stamford Bridge since 1990 with a deserved 3-1 victory on April 1 in which Alli had a brace in a four-minute span of the second half.

Spurs were swept up in Manchester City’s relentless march to the Premier League title, this time losing 3-1 in the home encounter. That ended a seven-match winning streak in league play and started a three-match blip in which they were also ousted from the FA Cup in the semifinals against Manchester United despite it being a “home” match at Wembley.

While Kane missed nearly three weeks with an ankle injury, he made it a point to return as soon as he felt himself fit to play, which also may have been too quick a return. Still, the Spurs forward reached 30 Premier League goals for the first time in his career by recording a brace in the season finale versus Leicester City that also pushed him over the 40-goal plateau in all competitions. Fourteen of Kane’s 41 goals were match-winners, an impressive rate considering the Spurs won 33 gams across all competitions.

Kane finished second to Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah in his bid to win a third consecutive Golden Boot in the Premier League, but he would go on to capture the World Cup version for England with six goals in Russia in leading the Three Lions to their first semifinal appearance since 1990.

Overshadowed by Kane’s season-long magnificence and Alli’s burgeoning stardom was Heung-Min Son finishing second on Tottenham with 18 goals in all competitions. He also had nine assists while playing nearly 400 fewer minutes than Alli, who still had an impressive season with 14 goals and 14 assists. Eriksen also had 14 goals, with his sublime form late in the term serving as a springboard to power Denmark to the round of 16 in the World Cup.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Tottenham Hotspur Lineup.png

With the impending departure of Moussa Dembele and perhaps Toby Alderweireld, there could be some changes to Pochettino’s preferred 4-2-3-1 set-up, with Davies continuing to serve as left back and Dier stepping into the defensive midfield role after a solid performance for England this summer. While Eriksen does more damage in a central role as a playmaker, he and Alli will likely overlap in the center while Son moves about flank to flank underneath Kane.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

It has been a rather quiet summer for Tottenham, which has largely stood pat in the transfer window. Dembele has been rumoured to be heading for the exit, while defender Alderweireld has been frustrated for months over the lack of progress regarding a new contract. Tottenham’s on-again, off-again pursuit of Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha is apparently off at the moment.

While Spurs are reportedly interested in Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish, that situation is complicated by Villa having new ownership and their desire to return to the Premier League after coming up one goal short versus Fulham in last season’s playoff for the final promoted spot from the Championship.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Harry Kane (F)

Kane has become the face of both Tottenham Hotspur and England after spectacular seasons for both, and was properly rewarded this summer with a new six-year contract worth at least £62 million and worth potentially as much as £90 million if incentives are reached. He has grown in stature as a professional on and off the pitch, realising his spot in English football, and at the age of 25, is entering the prime of a career with a running partner in Alli as the linchpins of a London club set to open a new era with its shining new pitch on the hill with its revamped and more expansive White Hart Lane.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Tottenham is fifth on the tote board to win the Premier League at 16/1 odds per Ladbrokes and fifth with 4/5 odds to record a fourth consecutive top-four finish. Spurs are joint-fifth with Arsenal to be atop the table on Christmas Day at 12/1 odds and joint-fourth with Chelsea at 1/9 odds for a top-six finish.

Kane is the favorite to win the Golden Boot as the league’s top scorer with 11/4 odds, with Son a distant second among Spurs players at 80/1. In terms of top goal-scorers on the Lilywhites, Kane is an expected heavy favorite at 1/5 odds, while Eriksen, Alli and Son are all joint-second at 10/1.

Kane is also currently running third to be PFA Player of the Year at 10/1 odds, and Eriksen is joint-eighth at 20/1 and Alli slightly further back at 25/1.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 11 — Newcastle United (10th) A
Aug. 18 — Fulham (N/A) H
Aug. 27 — Manchester United (2nd) A
Sept. 2 — Watford (14th) A
————–
April 20 — Manchester City (1st) A
April 27 — West Ham United (13th) H
May 4 — Bournemouth (12th) A
May 12 — Everton (8th) H

OUTLOOK

There is much to like about Tottenham Hotspur from one through 11 as constructed given it is one of the most balanced sides in the Premier League and Europe. The problem is little has been done to upgrade Nos. 12 and beyond, and in a league were the big guns are always re-loading and re-tooling to compete domestically and abroad, that is a troubling predicament.

Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has taken great pains to keep his wage structure as conservative as possible, though he recognised the obvious greatness in his midst with Kane and justly rewarded the striker with a deal that winds up creating a reported pay packet of £200,000 per match in extending him through 2024. Levy’s reported salary at £6 million per year in 2016-17 when it was revealed last spring raised some eyebrows internally among the players, almost all of whom have faced difficult negotiations with the club chairman when it came time for new contracts.

Those negotiations are why Dembele and Alderweireld are looking elsewhere, and defender Danny Rose joined that chorus last season in feeling underpaid. How Levy navigates this minefield as Tottenham chase a fourth consecutive podium finish in the Premier League will be one of the running sub-plots of the season off the pitch around White Hart Lane.

Between the nearly non-existent roster turnover in either direction and the high number of players who logged significant match time at the World Cup in Russia — Kane, Alli, Trippier, Rose, Alderweireld, Dier, Hugo Lloris, and Jan Vertonghen all participated in at least five matches for their respective countries while Eriksen and Davinson Sanchez reached the knockout rounds — Tottenham’s depth is going to be severely tested through at least the first four matches of the season ahead of the first international break.

Erik Lamela, Harry Winks and Lucas Moura will be asked to shoulder much of that playmaking burden early on, and Fernando Llorente is eager to atone for scoring just one league goal after a £15 million move from Swansea City last January.

All of the elite teams have these kind of problems, but while Spurs appear to have the same lack of depth as Manchester United when it comes to World Cup fatigue, champion Manchester City and Liverpool took steps to further re-tool their respective sides ahead of another dual-track season of domestic and Champions League responsibilities.

Pochettino is one of the best managers in the Premier League, and he knows his team inside and out. There are few worries about Spurs burning out on the pitch since he is more than capable as a man-manager, but the sacrifices he will have to make in the early part of the season likely will come with the unintended consequence of sacrificed points.

For a team desperate to end an 11-year drought when it comes to silverware as it moves into a new stadium, that is not an ideal situation. Tottenham, though, could be the darkhorse team in the run-in, and that match at the Etihad versus Manchester City in April could loom large for both sides in the title race.

PREDICTED FINISH

3rd place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                 August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion    August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                     August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                    August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          August 6 — Manchester City

2018 World Cup Preview Match 63 — Belgium vs. England

When Belgium and England played last month to close out Group G, there was nothing on the line. Though third place at the World Cup may feel like little more than nothing, the teams will clash Saturday in St. Petersburg to complete their respective journeys in Russia.

The golden generation of Belgium has pride on the line, looking for its best World Cup finish after losing to France in the third-place match in 1986. Roberto Martinez’s team was on the wrong end of a 1-0 scoreline in Tuesday’s semifinal, also against France.

The counterattack that served the Red Devils so well in their knockout victories over Japan and Brazil was completely stifled by Les Bleus. Belgium, which entered the match with a World Cup-leading 14 goals, was limited to three shots on target as Toby Alderweireld and Axel Witsel had the side’s best chances on either side of halftime.

Romelu Lukaku, who is tied for second in the race for the Golden Boot with four goals, was starved of service up front and neutralized by France’s central defenders. While he did have an assist against Brazil, Lukaku has furthered a dubious reputation as a flat-track bully by failing to score in all three knockout matches after bagging his braces against Panama and Tunisia in group play.

“I’m proud of the way we performed and of our World Cup,” Belgium midfielder Kevin De Bruyne told FIFA’s official website. “France maybe played a little defensively but the beauty of football is that you can choose the way you want to play. I respect that.

“We feel we’ve given our all and we need to focus on the positives. We’ve got just one wish now: to win a sixth match in Russia so we can go away on holiday even more at peace with ourselves.”

Coach Roberto Martinez, whose tactics succeeded against Brazil, faltered against France in opting for Mousa Dembele as Belgium sorely missed suspended wing back Thomas Meunier in the semifinals. Keeper Thibaut Courtois again did well between the sticks, finishing with four saves, and has made 12 in his last two matches after making 10 in his first four contests.

Of Martinez’s first-choice XI, at least five players could be making their final World Cup appearance, most notably talisman and central defender Vincent Kompany. Alderweireld, Witsel, Marouane Fellaini and Jan Vertonghen also could all be marking their international farewell with this match, though all five could also be in Martinez’s plans for the 2020 European Championship.

As Belgium begins a cycle of transition to some of its younger players to build around the axis of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Eden Hazard, England is looking to take one last positive from an overachieving World Cup experience. The Three Lions, the second-youngest team in terms of experience in Russia, have brought a renewed sense of optimism to a fan base that had come to expect — and endure — the worst over the past 20-plus years.

Gareth Southgate’s team has an incredibly quick turnaround following its heart-breaking 2-1 defeat in extra time to Croatia on Wednesday. Kieran Trippier gave the Three Lions the lead in the fifth minute with a sumptuous free kick, but the fearlessness of youth finally gave way to the nerves of the moment.

The lack of a true playmaking midfielder doomed England, who did not have a shot on frame for 94 minutes after Trippier’s goal. There was much for the Three Lions to rue in that short time frame after the final whistle Wednesday and kickoff Saturday as both Harry Kane and Jesse Lingard spurned chances with the opportunity to double England’s lead in the first half.

Then there were the split-second moments and decisions that led to Croatia’s two goals — Kyle Walker going too low on his headed clearance that allowed Ivan Perisic to score the tying goal in the 68th minute and John Stones’ brief lapse that let Mario Mandzukic ghost behind him for the match-winner 11 minutes from time.

Still, considering the low expectations England faced considering its 2014 group play exit and embarrassing loss to Iceland two summers ago in the round of 16 in the European Championships, this stirring run to the semifinals and an opportunity to play a seventh match at the World Cup was more than anyone could have projected.

“It shows we can be up there,” Kane said. “It shows we can win knockout games, it shows we can get to the semi-finals. It’s a great foundation we have built over the last couple of years with the gaffer, and we’ve just got to carry that on. We are proud of what we’ve achieved, but we want more. We’re sad that we couldn’t give the fans here and back home a Final.

“It’s tough. We’re gutted, you know. We worked so hard. I’m sure there was stuff we could have done better, but we worked as hard as we could. It hurts, it’ll hurt for a while, but we can hold our heads up high.

While the match gives both Martinez and Southgate another chance to again use their reserves as a reward working hard at practice, one regular who wants no part of the bench is England keeper Jordan Pickford. The Everton No. 1 was one of England’s top players in the knockout matches and wants his 11th cap.

“Hopefully I will get the nod against Belgium. I’d love to be the goalkeeper of the tournament,” Pickford told The Sun. “We came to win this tournament and we can’t do that now but we want to finish third. It will be a tough test against Belgium — again.

“It will be hard to get ourselves up for it. That’s where character comes in. It’s a chance to show our togetherness. We want to finish a great tournament on a high.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Belgium
June 18 — Belgium 3, Panama 0 (Mertens 47′, Lukaku 69′, 75′)
June 23 — Belgium 5, Tunisia 2 (Hazard 6′ (PK), Lukaku 16′, Bronn 18′, Lukaku 45+3′, Hazard 51, Batshuayi 90′, Khazri 90+3′)
June 28 — Belgium 1, England 0 (Januzaj 51′)
July 2 — Belgium 3, Japan 2 (Haraguchi 48′, Inui 52′, Vertonghen 69′, Fellaini 74′, Chadli 90+4′)
July 6 — Belgium 2, Brazil 1 (Fernandinho 13′ (og), De Bruyne 31′, Augusto 76′)
July 10 — Belgium 0, France 1 (Umtiti 51′)

England
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 7 — England 2, Sweden 0 (Maguire 30′, Alli 59′)
July 11 — England 1, Croatia 2 a.e.t. (Trippier 5′, Perisic 68′, Mandzukic 109′)

FORMATIONS

It’s uncertain whether Martinez will overhaul his lineup for this match considering he already did in the group match. The hedge is he will at least give Lukaku a chance to try and catch Kane for the Golden Boot and include him in the starting XI. That leads to the belief Belgium’s primary attacking trio of Lukaku, De Bruyne and Hazard will be out there at the start.

Meunier likely will be restored to the starting lineup since he’s the freshest player of either team after serving his yellow-card ban in the quarterfinals. It would not be surprising to see Dedryck Boyata in central defense, but the hedge is Martinez will use this match as a farewell for his stars.

Southgate will probably have a mix of his starters and substitutes, though Trippier is almost certain to miss this match after having suffered a lower-body injury in the final minutes of extra time in the loss to Croatia. It’s also possible Eric Dier could start in central midfield after Jordan Henderson ran himself into the ground in five of the six matches for the Three Lions.

Like Lukaku, there is an expectation Kane will at least be out there for the start to let him try and hunt out a seventh goal that would set an England record at a single World Cup. The one area of intrigue would be playing youngsters Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold together again like Southgate did in group play.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Meunier is available after serving his one-match ban, and while it is not definite, Trippier is likely the only person on either side who is not expected to play due to his injury. England striker Jamie Vardy was fit enough to play the final eight minutes after missing the Colombia match with a groin injury.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Belgium — Romelu Lukaku (F)

After a frustrating match against France, Lukaku has one last chance to pip Kane for the Golden Boot. His assist against Brazil secured the Silver Boot since he is the only player among fellow four-goal scorers Denis Cheryshev (Russia) and Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal). If Lukaku fails to score in this match, France’s Antoine Griezmann could claim second with a goal since he has two assists.

England — Jordan Pickford (GK)

Pickford came to Russia with just four caps and plenty of question marks. He will leave this World Cup as a world-class keeper and full of confidence ahead of returning to Everton for the upcoming Premier League season. Only France’s Hugo Lloris has had a better overall run in the knockout stages between the sticks, and Pickford has answered the call in crucial moments time and again for the Three Lions.

The fact he wants to start this match bodes well for Southgate as Pickford wants a stranglehold on the No. 1 shirt as England begins its next cycle — the 2020 European Championships.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1954 (Switzerland) GS — England 4, Belgium 4 a.e.t. (Anoul 5′, Broadis 26′, Lofthouse 36′, Broadis 63′, Coppens 67′, Anoul 71′, Lofthouse 91′, Dickinson 94′ (og))
1990 (Italy) R/16 — England 1, Belgium 0 a.e.t. (Platt 119‘)
2018 (Russia) GS — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)

Belgium’s victory in Kaliningrad last month was just its third in 22 all-time matches (3-4-15) versus England and its first in three World Cup matches (1-1-1). The previous two World Cup matches came in 1954 and 1990 — the first being a wild 4-4 draw in group play in Switzerland in which an own goal by England’s James William Dickinson in the 94th minute was the equalizer.

The teams meet again in Italy 36 years later, with England winning 1-0 after extra time in the round of 16 as David Platt’s superb volley on a free kick from Paul Gascoigne in the 119th minute spared the Three Lions potential misery in penalties.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Belgium is a firm favorite with 23/20 odds, while England is listed as a 9/4 underdog. Bettors do not seem too keen on the match ending in a draw and going to penalties as the listed odds are 27/10.

Punters are also expecting goals in this contest as two and three-goal totals are joint-favorites at 3/1, and a four-goal outcome is listed at 4/1. For first goal-scorers, Kane nudges out Lukaku as favorite with 10/3 odds, while Lukaku is 4/1. Michy Batshuayi is third on the list at 9/2 odds while Hazard and Vardy are joint-fourth at 11/2.

PREDICTION

It’s the match nobody wants to play yet both Belgium and England will be keen on exiting Russia on an up note. It is the first rematch in a World Cup since 2002, when Brazil beat Turkey in the semifinals after doing so in group play. It is the fifth time overall since 1962, with Brazil involved in three previous instances.

Everything about predicting what could happen in this match is a crapshoot give the emotional hangover of losing a World Cup semifinal, more so for England considering the Three Lions have a shorter turnaround and had the more excruciating defeat by losing in extra time.

You expect professionalism on both sides, and with so many players familiar with one another playing in England’s Premier League, there should be enough motivation to avoid being needled on the club training grounds to put forth such an effort. In the last third-place game in 2014, host Brazil’s hangover from its 7-1 thrashing at the hands of Germany most certainly carried into its 3-0 defeat to the Netherlands.

Last month’s group stage closer saw 17 of the 22 starters on the bench for the opening kickoff. It would seem likely that number will be significantly less while still operating with a noticeable mix of holdovers and reserves.

At the very least, the hope is both teams pick out their star strikers to try and help their cause to win the Golden Boot. Both Kane and Lukaku were spectators in Belgium’s 1-0 victory, and while Kane may be the more tired of the pair given his 120-minute effort versus Croatia, the Three Lions talisman undoubtedly will give it his all should Southgate ask him to lead the line.

In the end, though, look for Belgium to aggressively pour forward and while England may have more opportunities to counter than it did in last month’s 1-0 loss, it may also be picked apart more by a higher-quality Red Devils side.

PREDICTION: Belgium 3, England 2

UP NEXT

England’s first Nations League match will be at home against Spain on Sept. 8, while Belgium’s first match in the new UEFA set-up will be Sept. 11 at Iceland.

2018 World Cup Semifinal Preview — Croatia vs. England (Match 62)

Freed from the chains of their past — some distant and others more recent — Croatia and England vie in Moscow on Wednesday to claim a spot in the World Cup final.

For the Vatreni, the tall order of living up to the 1998 squad led by Davor Suker who reached the semifinals in the country’s first World Cup appearance has finally been achieved. It took becoming the first team to win consecutive shootouts since the 1990 Argentina side to get there, but Croatia booked its spot in the final four with a dramatic victory over Russia on penalties after playing to a 2-2 draw.

Andrej Kramaric scored a first-half goal to level the match and Domagoj Vida’s header off Luka Modric’s corner in the 101st minute gave Croatia a 2-1 lead it relinquished with five minutes left in the second 15-minute extra period.

It would be penalties once more, and after tying a World Cup record with three saves in the victory over Denmark, Vatreni keeper Danijel Subasic made a fourth versus the Sbornaya. Mario Fernandes would add a second miss for Russia, and for the second straight match, Ivan Rakitic would convert the decisive kick into the lower left corner in the fifth round.

The Barcelona midfielder became the first person to take two winning spot kicks in World Cup history.

“I am proud to be part of this team that will remain enrolled as one of the biggest in Croatian sports,” Kramaric told FIFA’s official website. “But we do not want to stop now, we have to make it a step further.

“The match against Russia is yet another victory of our character. We have nerves of steel. We showed how calm and self-confident we are. Perhaps the match was not the most beautiful, but it will be remembered.”

It was an uneven match for Croatia, which at times bossed Russia around the pitch through Modric’s string-pulling while paying heavy prices for mistakes on both goals. Defender Josep Pivaric conceded a free kick just outside the penalty area with a deliberate hand ball that led to Russia’s late equalizer.

Despite taking 18 shots, the Vatreni put only three on target, though a fourth by Ivan Perisic hit the inside of the left post and spun away in the second half. Croatia, though, has made the most of its chances when it gets good looks — its 10 goals have come from 19 shots on target.

England left behind its tortured past in penalties by becoming just the third team in 30 World Cup shootouts to overturn a deficit when it beat Colombia in spot kicks in the round of 16. The Three Lions had a more straightforward victory in reaching the semifinals for the first time since 1990, defeating Sweden 2-0.

Harry Maguire extended England’s dominance in set pieces in Russia with a well-taken header off a corner in the first half, and Dele Alli’s second-half header from close range accounted for the offense. Keeper Jordan Pickford picked an opportune time for his first clean sheet at this World Cup, making two timely saves in the second half and a third top-notch block to continue the surprise run of this young England side.

“The adrenaline was really, really high,” Maguire said. “It was an unbelievable moment, a really proud moment for myself. My first England goal – and it couldn’t have come at a better time. We’d had a nervy start maybe, early in the game, and the goal really settled us down and then we deserved the win.”

It was also England’s eighth goal off set pieces at this tournament, easily the most of any team and the most in World Cup history since Portugal bagged that many in 1966. Three Lions supporters may consider that a good omen, along with the 11 goals they have scored overall since that is how many goals they scored en route to their only World Cup title as hosts 52 years prior.

Striker Harry Kane still comfortably leads the Golden Boot race with six goals, two clear of Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku, Russia’s Denis Cheryshev and Portugal’s Cristiano Ronaldo, though only Lukaku can catch him of the three.

While chasing away the demons of past World Cups has been achieved, there is still one dubious moment in England’s storied history it would like to avenge against Croatia.

The Vatreni famously dumped the Three Lions out of qualifying for the 2008 European Championships with a 3-2 victory at Wembley Stadium in November 2007. Modric was part of a Croatia side that raced to a 2-0 lead, only to be pegged back in the second half as substitute David Beckham led the fightback.

Mladen Petric, though, bagged the match-winner 13 minutes from time for Croatia. In England, however, the lasting image of the match was then-manager Steve McClaren shouting instructions to his players on the pitch from under an umbrella, giving rise to the infamous nickname of “The Wally with the Brolly” that has followed him throughout his career.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Croatia
June 16 — Croatia 2, Nigeria 0 (Etebo 32′ (og), Modric 71′ (PK))
June 21 — Croatia 3, Argentina 0 (Rebic 53′, Modric 80′, Rakitic 90+1′)
June 26 — Croatia 2, Iceland 1 (Badelj 50′, G. Sigurdsson 76′ (PK), Perisic 90′)
July 1 — Croatia 1, Denmark 1 (Jorgensen 1′, Mandzukic 4′) (Croatia wins 3-2 on PKs)
July 7 — Croatia 2, Russia 2 (Cheryshev 31′, Kramaric 39′, Vida 101′, Fernandes 115′) (Croatia wins 4-3 on PKs)

England
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)
July 7 — England 2, Sweden 0 (Maguire 30′, Alli 59′)

FORMATIONS

While left back Ivan Strinic’s status has yet to be confirmed after he had to leave before the final quarter-hour of regulation versus Russia due to a knock, the hedge is he claims his spot back while knocking Pivaric back to the bench. Coach Zlatko Dalic has gone back and forth between a 4-2-3-1 and 4-1-4-1, with Modric lurking deeper in the latter formation and teaming with Rakitic in the former.

One other thing to look for from the Vatreni is how Marcelo Brozovic changes their shape. When he entered for Perisic on the hour, Croatia went to more of a 4-3-3 look with Kramaric pushing forward.

England will remain in its 3-3-2-2 set-up, though there will undoubtedly be speculation manager Gareth Southgate will drop Raheem Sterling from his starting XI as the Man City speedster has now gone more than 1,000 days without a goal for the Three Lions. The only player who comes closest to a like-for-like switch in such an instance would be Marcus Rashford, who entered as a stoppage-time sub for Sterling versus Sweden.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Croatia has been playing with 22 men since after its win over Nigeria to open the World Cup, sending home disgruntled striker Nikola Kalinic. Strinic is an injury concern, and the fatigue of playing 120 minutes in back-to-back matches means Dalic could juggle some players in this match.

Right back Sime Vrsaljko is also a worry to be match-fit, with Dalic having the option of inserting Tin Jedvaj there or moving Vida wide while pairing Lovren with Vedran Corluka in central defense.

The Vatreni, though, did pull off a remarkable feat in that while they accrued a tournament-high 12 yellow cards, everyone is eligible to play since no one picked up a second booking before they were wiped away by getting to the semifinals.

England’s lone injury worry is reserve striker Jamie Vardy, who picked up a groin injury versus Colombia and did not appear last match. There are reports the training staff are closely monitoring central midfielder Jordan Henderson, who covered two kilometers more ground than any of his teammates in the win versus Sweden.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Croatia — Luka Modric (MF)

Modric is no stranger to English football, having played for Tottenham Hotspur before moving on to Real Madrid and winning four Champions League titles in the last five years. The 32-year-old has looked more 22 in pulling the strings in the Vatreni midfield and was doggedly pursuing the ball and attacking defenders on lung-busting runs deep into extra time versus Russia.

He has been the best midfielder at this World Cup, and the young Three Lions must be wary of his nous and quality as Croatia’s offense revolves around his movements.

England — Kieran Trippier (MF)

Trippier has played very well in this World Cup, pumping in a team-high 37 crosses and 16 corner kicks. He has contributed an assist in the latter method, and while he will get his chances to do so in this match, Trippier is going to have to give serious minutes in defense for the first time in this tournament given Croatia’s depth in attack.

It will start with Perisic, though Modric and Rakitic will invariably work their way down their left side. Trippier cannot afford to be caught too far upfield and too wide given how Croatia can string passes together in lightning-like fashion, evidenced by their first goal against Russia which took all of 12 seconds.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

This will be the first World Cup clash between the teams, and England won the only tournament meeting between the sides, a 4-2 victory in the group stage of the 2004 European Championship in Portugal. Niko Kovac staked Croatia to an early lead before England scored the next three through Paul Scholes and a brace by Wayne Rooney. Igor Tudor pulled one back for the Vatreni on 73 minutes, but Frank Lampard put the game out of reach six minutes later.

England did sweep two qualifying matches from Croatia for the 2010 World Cup by a combined 9-2 scoreline, clinching a spot in South Africa with a 5-1 thrashing in September 2009 as both Lampard and Steven Gerrard had braces before Rooney added gloss to the scoreline. Mandzukic scored the Vatreni’s lone goal in the 4-1 defeat in Croatia.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, England is listed as a favorite with 13/10 odds, while Croatia is a 12/5 underdog. The odds of the match going to a draw are 2/1. The oddsmakers also think there will be two goals scored in the 90 minutes as that returns 23/10 odds, slightly better than one goal (27/10) and three (7/2). A 0-0 draw would return 6/1 odds.

Kane is the odds-on favorite as an any-time goal-scorer at 13/10, with Rakitic a distant second at 9/2. Kane is also leading the line for first goal-scorer at 16/5, with Vardy a surprising second at 5/1. Mandzukic is Croatia’s top option at 6/1, and Sterling is the fifth option for the Three Lions at 7/1, behind both Rashford and Danny Welbeck at 13/2.

PREDICTION

Too young, they said. Too inexperienced, they said. It’s OK, we’re in a rebuilding phase, they said. We’ll be happy to get out of the group stage, they said. Nearly a month later, non-stop scenes of goal celebrations complete with the re-emergence of 1996 Euro anthem “It’s Coming Home,” England find itself two wins away from an unthinkable World Cup title.

The Three Lions have looked good in dispatching each opponent they have faced save the 25 minutes against Colombia in which they wobbled, giving up a late equalizer in regulation and suffering in the first extra period. Yet they are deserved semifinalists, and as the old adage goes, you can only play the teams in front of you.

Yet if there is a last gear this team has left to reach, it must find it quickly against a veteran-edged Croatia side that has more talent and nous than any opponent England has previously faced during its extended stay in Russia. Consider the Three Lions opponents: an unfancied Tunisia, an inferior Panama, a second-string Belgium, a Colombia missing its best player through injury and a Sweden squad that while game may also have been the perfect opponent coming off a 120-minute contest.

Now consider Croatia’s foes: A naive yet talented Nigeria, a top-heavy Argentina, a desperate but outclassed Iceland, an average Denmark side with a world-class shot-stopper and overachieving host Russia. The Vatreni have played an extra 30 minutes compared to England to get to the last four, and their road has been more arduous.

Yet there are plenty of places where England can take solace. Kane got so into Lovren’s head in a Premier League match last season when Tottenham Hotspur played Liverpool that the Croatia defender was subbed out a half-hour into the match. The spine of Maguire and John Stones in central defense have been nothing short of phenomenal doing their primary job while carrying forward with the ball and contributing goals off set pieces.

Pickford is coming off the best match of his England career and riding a wave of confidence. That will come in handy because at some point Modric will be able to recycle Croatia’s offense in England’s final third and put the Three Lions under sustained pressure.

It’s fair to wonder how much Croatia has left in the tank coming off back-to-back shootouts, but being able to rest most of its regulars versus Iceland helped mitigate some of that fatigue. Dalic has also shown a willingness to rotate his attacking players, complete with the surprising lifting of Perisic on the hour versus Russia.

This game has the feel of a rope-a-dope by Croatia unless England harries Modric and Rakitic all over the midfield and prevents them from passing forward in rapid fashion. Modric is the more dangerous passer of the two, the one who causes moments of disruption as opposed to the more fluid Rakitic, but the X-factor for the Vatreni could be Ante Rebic.

Rebic has stretches of play when he is borderline unstoppable, but he has yet to sustain it over a full 90 minutes. If he can hook up with Mandzukic, also owning the potential to be a handful, Croatia has a good chance to go forward to its first World Cup final and deny England its long-awaited return and extend 52 years of hurt.

PREDICTION: Croatia 2, England 1

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will face the winner of the France-Belgium match in the World Cup final on Sunday in Moscow. The semifinal losers will play each other for third place Saturday in St. Petersburg.

 

2018 World Cup Quarterfinal Preview — Sweden vs. England (Match 60)

After releasing nearly three decades worth of catharsis, England can end a World Cup semifinal drought of similar length Saturday when the Three Lions face upstart Sweden in the quarterfinals in Samara.

All the anguish and tears — both in bitterness and sadness — of 28 years and three World Cup defeats through penalties were finally wiped away when England advanced past Colombia 4-3 following a 1-1 draw after 120 minutes Tuesday.

The Three Lions became just the third team in 29 World Cup shootouts to overturn a deficit as Jordan Pickford stopped Carlos Bacca’s attempt in the fifth round before Eric Dier converted to send them through to the quarterfinals for the first time since 2006.

“For the belief of this group of players and for the players to come, it was a really important moment,” said manager Gareth Southgate, who contributed to the trail of England’s misery in penalties when he was stopped in the semifinals of the 1996 European Championship at Wembley versus Germany.

“Not just winning the shootout, but having to suffer at the end of the game in a stadium that was probably 5 to 1 Colombia fans … but just because of the numbers at times it felt like an away fixture.”

Harry Kane, who converted one of England’s penalties in the shootout, also scored his third goal in as many attempts from the spot during the match and is two clear in the race for the Golden Boot with six goals. It matches Gary Lineker’s 1986 standard for the most at any one World Cup, and he is now second on England’s all-time list behind Lineker, who potted another four in Italy four years later.

Sweden is in the quarterfinals for the first time since its third-place finish in 1994 following a 1-0 victory over Switzerland. The Blagult posted their third clean sheet of the World Cup and rode Emil Forsberg’s 66th-minute goal that took a deflection off Swiss defender Manuel Akanji to victory.

Janne Andersson’s team has yielded only 12 shots on frame in their four matches, with five of those coming in the loss to since-departed defending champion Germany. Sweden has made the most of its shots on target, with its six goals coming from 19 such shots.

“We have earned our success — we know how we have gotten this far,” Andersson said after the win. “We have worked this way throughout. What other teams and countries think about that is not terribly interesting to us.

“It’s just full steam ahead and, God dammit, we are going to put in a bloody good match. We are not satisfied with this. We want to win the next match.”

The challenge of going full speed ahead will be slightly slowed without right back Mikael Lustig, who picked up his second yellow card of the tournament and will serve his one-match ban in this contest.

Forsberg’s goal was his first of this World Cup, and he has a team-high 15 shots. His four on frame are second behind striker Marcus Berg, who has six, and tied with talisman and Andreas Granqvist, though two of the defender’s shots were converted penalty kicks.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Sweden
June 18 — Sweden 1, South Korea 0 (Granqvist 65′ (PK))
June 23 — Sweden 1, Germany 2 (Toivonen 32, Reus 48, Kroos 90+5′)
June 27 — Sweden 3, Mexico 0 (Augustinsson 50′, Granqvist 62′ (PK), Alvarez 74′ (og))
July 3 — Sweden 1, Switzerland 0 (Forsberg 66′)

England
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)
July 3 — England 1, Colombia 1 (Kane 57′ (PK), Mina 90+3′) (England wins 4-3 on PKs)

FORMATIONS

Sweden coach Janne Andersson will stick with his tried-and-true 4-4-2 set-up. Two changes are expected, one out of necessity with Lustig’s yellow-card ban. The most likely replacement appears to be 23-year-old Emil Krafth, who played the final nine minutes after being brought on for Lustig against Switzerland.

The other is the expected return of Sebastian Larsson in midfield after he served his yellow card ban against Die Nati, with Gustav Svensson expected to make way.

Southgate is also expected to retain his starting XI, though Danny Rose could be a injury replacement for Ashley Young. While Alli has insisted he is fit enough to play, Dier would be the likely fill-in should the Spurs attacking midfielder be unable to go.

INJURIES AND INELIGIBLES

Sweden will get Larsson back but will be without Lustig. Midfielders Albin Ekdal and Viktor Claesson are one yellow card away from missing a potential semifinal match.

Two players who are injury concerns for England are the left back Young and striker Jamie Vardy. Young has a left ankle injury, but Vardy is the more serious worry of the two after suffering a groin injury against Colombia that was intense enough to prevent him from taking a penalty.

Midfielder Fabian Delph is back with the team after being in England to be with his wife for the birth of their third daughter. The Three Lions have four players on a yellow card, including starters Jordan Henderson, Jesse Lingard and Kyle Walker.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Sweden — Albin Ekdal (MF)

While Sweden came away with a victory, Ekdal spurned two quality chances to score against Switzerland, including a gilt-edged one near the end of the first half when he volleyed over the bar unmarked from eight yards with the goal at his mercy instead of heading it home. He will need to put that behind him quickly if he is to score his first international goal on such a big stage.

England — Dele Alli (MF)

It has been a challenging World Cup for Kane’s running partner with Spurs. Alli has missed two matches with a thigh injury and was lifted after 81 minutes against Colombia partially due to that ailment.

Kane has been starved of service in threatening areas when considering his other three goals have come via an inadvertent deflection he knew nothing about and two close-range headers on corners. While Alli is just one person, he is the player most in sync with Kane and the player most likely to provide the killer pass that can split a defense as disciplined as Sweden’s.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

2002 (Japan/South Korea) GS — Sweden 1, England 1 (Campbell 24′, Alexandersson 59′)
2006 (Germany) GS — Sweden 2, England 2 (J. Cole 34′, Allback 51′, Gerrard 85′, Larsson 90′)

This is the first time the teams are meeting in the World Cup with so much at stake after two group stage draws. The last meeting in a competitive setting came in group play at the 2012 European Championship, with England posting a 3-2 victory.

Danny Welbeck, a reserve on this squad, scored the match-winner off the bench in the 78th minute. Henderson and backup keeper Jack Butland were on England’s roster. Granqvist started that match for Sweden and was replaced by Lustig in the 66th minute while Ola Toivonen was an unused substitute.

The teams also played to a pair of scoreless draws in 1990 World Cup qualifying, and Sweden recorded a 2-1 victory in the group stage of the 1992 Euros. The Blagult also had a win and a draw in their two matches in qualifying for the 2000 Euros.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, bettors are jumping on the England bandwagon as it has 10/11 odds to advance to the semifinals. Sweden is getting 7/2 odds as an underdog, while the odds of England going to penalty kicks for a second straight match after a draw are 21/10.

Oddsmakers are also expecting a low-scoring affair, with England getting 8/5 odds to score one goal while Sweden are getting 21/20 odds to be held off the scoresheet. The Blagult are getting 31/20 odds to score once, while the Three Lions have 5/2 odds off failing to score.

Kane is the leading choice for first goal-scorer at 13/5 odds, with Vardy second at 9/2 despite his injury. Berg is the top Swedish option at 7/1 and is seventh on the board overall behind there being no goal-scorer (5/1) and Welbeck, Raheem Sterling and Marcus Rashford (11/2).

PREDICTION

England’s win in the 2012 Euros is one of just two wins over Sweden in the last 15 overall matches (2-8-5) between the teams. There’s not much to take from the most recent one, a 4-2 victory for Sweden in a 2012 friendly, mainly because Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored all four goals for the Blagult.

But in some ways, it makes the match all the more intriguing since Sweden transitioned from Ibrahimovic’s individual brilliance without much international success to being the most unlikely of the eight quarterfinalists save host Russia because of its team-first identity and rigid defense.

And as Sweden have pivoted towards a collective, England is gravitating in the other direction behind Kane. While he lacks the rapacious ego of Ibrahimovic, Kane does definitely not lack the ruthlessness for hunting and scoring goals. The Tottenham Hotspur star has been his own best advocate in this offense, drawing two of the three penalties he has converted in addition to his three other goals.

Therein lies the rub with the Three Lions. Because there is no pure No. 10 in England’s offense, there is no sense of offense outside Kane save the one goal Sterling and Lingard created versus Panama. In the 40 minutes Colombia did not play cynically or go into histrionics in the round of 16, it played the kind of football that caused England to suffer, especially in the first 15 minutes of extra time.

Sweden does not have the individual talent Colombia has, save the world-class skills of Forsberg, but now that he has scored his first goal of this World Cup, he is the one player most likely to provide a moment of magic. Additionally, Berg has played well enough through Sweden’s first four matches he deserves a goal.

The Blagult have had the majority of possession in just one of their four matches — their first one against South Korea — and have not had more than 40 percent in any of the last three. They will likely cede possession to England since their back line is too disciplined to worry about the meaningless possession the Three Lions will have in the middle third of the park.

That is the possession the Three Lions need to turn into positive play, which is going to be a challenge on a short turnaround having played 30 extra minutes. Whether it’s Young or Rose, the left black must get forward and challenge Krafth in hopes the pressure of the moment will induce a mistake or two.

That England has scored the majority of its goals off set pieces runs directly into Sweden’s strength save the wonder goal Toni Kroos scored for Germany. The Three Lions have done well to get to this point, and while they will have plenty of confidence entering this contest, the Blagult look to be composed enough to deny them their first semifinal appearance in 28 years while making their first since 1994.

PREDICTION: Sweden 1, England 0

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will play the winner of the match between host Russia and Croatia in the semifinals in Moscow on Wednesday.

 

2018 World Cup Recap Match 56 — Colombia 1, England 1 (England wins 4-3 on penalties. (July 3)

Jordan Pickford and Eric Dier combined to end 28 years of World Cup misery on penalty kicks for England as one save and one conversion on back-to-back attempts powered the Three Lions to a contentious victory over Colombia in the round of 16 on Tuesday in Moscow.

Pickford gave England a chance to win when he got his left hand up fast enough to knock away Carlos Bacca’s attempt in the fifth round. Dier, with the weight of a nation who had witnessed three World Cup exits in this excruciating method of finding a winner on his shoulders, was the picture of calm as he ripped a shot into the lower left corner where Colombia keeper David Ospina could not get enough of his hand out to stop it.

The clinical performance in which only Jordan Henderson failed to convert vindicated England manager Gareth Southgate’s decision to have his young Three Lions embrace his side’s tortured past in penalties, something he contributed to in the 1996 European Championship semifinals at Wembley Stadium with an attempt stopped in the loss to Germany.

It was the first time in four World Cup knockout matches and second time in seven major tournaments England advanced via penalty kicks after losing to West Germany in the 1990 semifinals, Argentina in the round of 16 in 1998 and Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in the 2006 quarterfinals.

There were continental exits in 2004 and 2012 at the hands of Portugal and Italy, respectively, though England did oust Spain in the quarters of the 1996 Euro before its elimination in similar fashion by Germany.

It also released a catharsis of celebration in the country that invented football, with fan viewings across England erupting into cheers of ecstasy that reverberated in both cities and towns.

After nearly throwing away a victory deep in second-half stoppage time when Colombia’s Yerry Mina found a last-gasp equalizer and finally exorcising its demons 12 yards at a time on football’s biggest stage, England will face Sweden on Saturday in Samara as it makes its first quarterfinal appearance since 2006.

Los Cafeteros were denied a second consecutive World Cup appearance in the round of eight as they struggled to find any sort of rhythm without playmaker James Rodriguez, who watched from the stands after failing to pass a late fitness test with a calf injury.

Colombia played a largely defensive and, at times, cynical match as it accrued six yellow cards in a match American referee Mark Geiger struggled to control throughout the first 90 minutes before fatigue and the urgency of the moment created mainly cooler heads in the extra 30.

England talisman Harry Kane, who confidently struck his side’s first penalty to keep the ghosts of the past at bay, also converted from the spot early in the second half for his tournament-leading sixth goal — three of which have come via penalties.

The first five penalties were converted before Ospina dove to his left and pushed out Henderson’s attempt around the right post. Mates Uribe, with a chance to put Colombia up 4-2 from the spot, thumped the underside of the crossbar on the right to give England a lifeline they took full advantage of as Kevin Trippier brought the Three Lions level before Pickford’s heroics against Bacca.

Los Cafeteros settled into a defensive alignment without Rodriguez, content to soak up pressure and try to use their pace to hit on the counter. Still, England was barely fazed as it racked up three corners and a threatening free kick in the first 10 minutes.

On that free kick from just outside the penalty area low on the left side, Ashley Young’s fierce right-footed drive was punched out with equal force by Ospina. Raheem Sterling was gifted a chance in the 13th minute when a Colombian back pass went awry, but his shot from just above the penalty area was blocked by Davinson Sanchez.

England narrowly missed going ahead in the 16th minute when Trippier fizzed a cross from the right deep across goal but it had too much pace for Kane as he headed over the bar from inside five yards.

Colombia finally grew into the match after the quarter-hour with its first spell of possession, with Pickford getting his first meaningful touch of the ball to intercept a long pass intended for Radamel Falcao. Los Cafeteros were trying to work forward on the right side through Juan Cuadrado, Juan Quintero and right back Santiago Arias, but the trio were unable to create much separation from England’s defenders.

Colombia’s first shot came in the 33rd minute as Falcao chested down a throw-in and laid a pass off to Quintero, who scuffed his 25-yard shot well wide of the right post.

Kane earned a free kick from 25 yards to the left of the D in the 38th minute as Jefferson Lerma cut him down from behind. As players from both sides jostled for position on the wall, Colombia defender Wilmer Barrios was lucky to escape with only a yellow card from Geiger after he head-butted Henderson underneath the Liverpool midfielder’s chin.

After all the dramatic buildup, Trippier fizzed one over the wall but wide of the left post. Kane took a speculative shot from 20 yards on the right that went well wide as the match continued to grow in chippiness as Sterling and Mina got in each other’s faces.

Pickford was finally tested in the second minute of stoppage time when he caught a short-hopped shot from Quintero 20 yards out. England quickly played out forward as Barrios had a desperate headed clearance on a cross for Young, but Jesse Lingard lashed his volley from 15 yards over the bar.

All told, there were nearly five added minutes before Geiger blew his whistle to end the first half.

Santiago Arias picked up a caution in the 52nd minute for a poor 50/50 challenge on Kane that gave England a free kick 30 yards from goal on the left. Ashley Young curled in a perfect right-footed kick, but Colombia’s Davinson Sanchez made a crucial intervention to deny Harry Maguire a clean header.

On the ensuing corner, Geiger pointed to the spot after watching Carlos Sanchez haul down Kane after the Tottenham Hotspur striker got a step on him trying to get free on the left. The Colombian players were enraged at Geiger, remonstrating for him to consult VAR as the American referee was losing control of the match.

He angrily brandished a yellow card at Henderson, who nudged Mina with the back of his head. After almost three minutes of delays, Kane lashed his penalty down the middle for his sixth goal of the tournament, matching Gary Lineker’s record for the most by any England player at a World Cup in 1986.

Colombia began to take a more direct approach as it tried to find an equalizer, introducing Bacca in the 62nd minute for Lemar. Tempers continued to flare as Falcao was booked protesting over a foul not called, and Bacca was shown a yellow card immediately thereafter for a cynical challenge on John Stones.

Los Cafeteros looked devoid of ideas until being gifted a chance in the 81st minute when Bacca took the ball off Walker and went through the middle of the pitch in a 2-on-2. He laid off the ball to his right for an on-rushing Cuadrado, but the Juventus winger went well wide with his 18-yard attempt.

England seemed to be successfully killing off the game, with Pickford comfortably saving a low 20-yard shot from Falcao on 87 minutes. But the danger started in an unlikely manner as Uribe ripped a 30-yard shot that forced the Everton No. 1 into a leaping fingertip save to knock it away from the upper right corner for Colombia’s first corner of the match on 93 minutes.

And the wait was well worth it as Mina used all of his 6-foot-5 frame to reach Cuadrado’s corner, towering over Harry Maguire and hitting a downward header from six yards that bounced into the upper left side of the net, giving Los Cafeteros a sucker punch of an equalizer that extended the match.

Fully buoyed with momentum, Colombia was the better team in the first 15-minute period.  Los Cafeteros won a corner in the 101st minute when Bacca’s header was deflected over the end line. Mina couldn’t put this header on frame, though, knocking it wide of the left post from 12 yards. Colombia continued to press forward, with Falcao going wide on a header in the 104th minute off a Johan Mojica cross from the left.

The intermission lifted sagging spirits on the England side as it seized momentum back in the final 15 minutes. Danny Rose came oh-so-close to winning it in the 112th minute as Henderson played him through on the left, but his left-footed shot fizzed inches wide of the far post after beating Ospina.

Jamie Vardy ran down a long ball and sending in a hopeful cross from the right to give England a corner in the 114th minute, but Dier — completely unmarked — thumped his eight-yard header well over the bar.

Vardy had a half-chance in the 108th minute after a sloppy clearance attempt by Colombia played him into the penalty area on the right, but his shot was blocked by Barrios.

Geiger handed out eight yellow cards overall as Henderson and Jesse Lingard picked up bookings that will be expunged ahead of the match against Sweden.

 

 

2018 World Cup Round of 16 Preview — Colombia vs. England (Match 56)

England may have lost the battle to win Group G, but it hopes being placed in the more navigable half of the knockout round bracket will help it win the World Cup war for the first time since 1966 as it faces Colombia in the round of 16 on Tuesday in Moscow.

While the Three Lions did not go about trying to lose their group finale against Belgium, which was for all intents and purposes a dead rubber since both teams had already secured passage, a lineup with eight changes to it did not set the world alight in a bid to sweep Group H.

Facing a similarly fashioned B squad from Belgium, England failed to create many quality scoring chances as a moment of brilliance from Adnan Januzaj, a player the England FA tried to woo in terms of citizenship for its senior team, dealt the Three Lions a 1-0 defeat that consigned them to the runner-up spot.

Not that it was a horrible outcome. On the surface, should England progress from this tricky tie, only unfancied Sweden or Switzerland would stand between it and a first World Cup semifinal since 1990. Compare that to Belgium, which has arguably the easiest match in the round of 16 against Japan before a potential murderers’ row of Brazil, Mexico, France and Uruguay between itself and the final.

The other truth of the loss to Belgium showed just how much Gareth Southgate’s squad picks itself. In fact, one can make the argument he now knows his top 15 players as Marcus Rashford, teenager Trent Arnold-Alexander, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Jamie Vardy are his top options off the bench.

While Loftus-Cheek has been serviceable in the place of injured Dele Alli, there is a certain amount of creativity lacking in the middle without the dynamic Tottenham Hotspur midfielder.

After watching the Belgium match from the bench, Golden Boot frontrunner Harry Kane looks to to add to his haul of five goals. Defender John Stones has added two as England has been lethal on dead-ball pieces in Russia, scoring five of its eight goals via corners and penalties.

Colombia, looking to return to the quarterfinals for the second consecutive World Cup, grinded its way to the top of Group H after losing its opening match to Japan in which it played a man down for all but three minutes. Los Cafeteros rebounded by steamrolling Poland and then showed their mettle by overcoming the loss of star James Rodriguez to defeat Senegal.

Rodriuguez’s calf will be the subject of international intrigue as it has limited the Bayern Munich attacking midfielder to 152 minutes in Russia as he came off the bench for the final 30 minutes in the loss to Japan, played the full 90 versus Poland and then was forced off when he aggravated the injury after a half-hour against Senegal. Even in that short span, Rodriguez assisted on two of Colombia’s five goals, including a perfectly weighted curling ball to Juan Cuadrado as he completed the scoring versus Poland.

While the Colombian federation released a statement saying an MRI revealed only swelling but no tear in the muscle, Rodriguez did not practice with the team Friday or Saturday, and there is justifiable worry about how effective he can be and how long he would be able to play if available.

Los Cafeteros’ trip to the final eight in Brazil four years ago, where they lost to the host in controversial fashion, is their best showing in five prior World Cup appearances.

HOW THEY GOT HERE

Colombia
June 19 — Colombia 1, Japan 2 (Kagawa 6′ (PK), Quintero 39′, Osako 73′)
June 24 — Colombia 3, Poland 0 (Mina 40′, Falcao 70′, Cuadrado 75′)
June 28 — Colombia 1, Senegal 0 (Mina 74′)

England
June 18 — England 2, Tunisia 1 (Kane 11′, Sassi 35′ (PK), Kane 90+1′)
June 24 — England 6, Panama 1 (Stones 8′, Kane 22′ (PK), Lingard 36′, Stones 40′, Kane 45+1′ (PK), Kane 62′, Baloy 78′)
June 28 — England 0, Belgium 1 (Januzaj 51′)

FORMATIONS

Colombia is expected to stick to its 4-2-3-1 formation. Even if he is not 100 percent, it is difficult to imagine a scenario in which Rodriguez does not play given the stakes and his competitiveness. If “Big Game James” does not start, Jose Izquerido would be the most viable alternative given he got the call in Los Cafeteros’ opener versus Japan.

Midfielder Abel Aguilar is questionable with an adductor injury that sidelined him from the group finale versus Senegal. Rodriguez, midfielder Wilmar Barrios and left back Johan Mojica are all on yellow cards for Colombia.

England will press on in its 3-5-2 set-up, and with Alli healthy, he is restored to the midfield for Loftus-Cheek. The other seven changes Southgate rang in for the Belgium match will be rung out as the usual backline of Stones flanked by Harry Maguire and Kyle Walker will protect Jordan Pickford, with wide backs Ashley Young and Kieran Trippier bombing forward when available.

Kane leads the line with Raheem Sterling underneath, while Jesse Lingard serves as the link to midfielder Jordan Henderson and Alli. Loftus-Cheek and Walker are the only players sitting on a yellow for the Three Lions.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Colombia — Yerry Mina (D)

A towering figure on the back line at 6-foot-5, Mina has buried a pair of headers for Colombia’s match-winning goals, including one off a corner by Juan Quintero for the only goal against Senegal. Primarily a reserve for Barcelona after his January arrival from Palmerias, Mina has put his practice time to good use as has five goals in 14 international appearances for Los Cafeteros.

England — Raheem Sterling (F)

While Kane has flourished in his first World Cup, Sterling has yet to take off in his second. The speedy second striker has yet to find the international success that lifted his game at Manchester City this past season but does have an assist in his two matches in Russia. England will need him to provide a counterweight through the middle against Colombia’s speed on the wings.

WORLD CUP HISTORY HEAD-TO-HEAD

1998 (France) England 2, Colombia 0 (Anderton 20′, Beckham 29′)

Darren Anderton opened the scoring with a sharp–angled volley in the penalty area and David Beckham followed with a world-class free kick as England grabbed control of the match in the first-half hour in Lens as it advanced to the knockout round with a convincing victory.

The Three Lions are unbeaten in five all-time matches (3-2-0) versus Colombia, with the most recent contest a 3-2 victory in New York in 2005 when Michael Owen recorded a hat trick.

BETTING ANGLE

Per Ladbrokes, Colombia is a slim favorite at 29/10 odds, with England close at 21/10. The odds of the match going to penalties after a draw and further fraying the nerves of Three Lions supporters are currently 2/1.

Kane is a clear front-runner to score the first goal of the match at 3/1, with Vardy 9/2. Falcao is Colombia’s top option at 11/2 odds, while Rodriguez has notably longer odds to make it 1-0 at 8/1.

PREDICTION

One of the undercurrents of this match is that two of Colombia’s key outfield players, Cuadrado and striker Radamel Falcao, were Premier League flameouts — Cuadrado seeing just 13 matches at Chelsea while Falcao struggled on loans with both Chelsea and Manchester United before finding his niche at Monaco. They played exactly 11 minutes together for Chelsea in a loss to Manchester City in 2015, and 10 days later Cuadrado was shipped to Turin, where he has thrived and reached a Champions League final.

And the 32-year-old Falcao has plenty of urgency since this will be his lone World Cup with Los Cafeteros as a torn ACL cruelly ended his dream to be on the 2014 squad. He is joint-leader in shots with Quintero (5) and has a team-best three shots on goal as he looks to add to his record haul of 30 goals with Colombia.

A third, David Ospina, has been a much-criticized understudy to Petr Cech at Arsenal, never getting both gloves on the No. 1 jersey since arriving in north London in 2014 from Nice. While he has recorded back-to-back clean sheets since the opening-match disaster against Japan, there are still times he provides anxieties on crosses and corners for Colombia.

Since Southgate opted to use the B squad against Belgium, there is little to take away from what England is all about, an argument that can be extended throughout its group play considering the gulf in class between the Three Lions and both Tunisia and Panama.

Everyone is well-rested, everyone is available now that Alli has declared himself healthy, but is this team ready to step up against a higher caliber of competition? The first team has hardly suffered in Russia, with one goal conceded on a naive penalty and the other in garbage time after scoring six.

Pickford had some anxious moments versus Belgium, though there wasn’t much he could do about Januzaj’s strike. This will be the first time England’s three-man backline will be put to the test, and how the Everton keeper responds will go a long way in determing if the Three Lions make their first World Cup quarterfinals since 2006.

The adage is that young teams find ways to lose, and with Colombia sporting four players — Ospina, Rodriguez, Cuadrado and Carlos Sanchez — who have precious knockout round experience, the hedge here is Los Cafeteros find a way to edge out a game but naive England side.

Prediction: Colombia 2, England 1

UP NEXT

The winner of this match will play the winner of the Sweden-Switzerland match in the quarterfinals July 7 at Samara.