England did it.
The Three Lions overcame the odds, proved the doubters wrong, learned the tricks of the trade to come second in the group. It was either a truly majestic moment of cold-blooded calculation or an absolute mockery of the World Cup and sport in general.
Not that England were trying to come second. While Gareth Southgate didn’t chase the game once the Three Lions went behind, neither did he send his side out to actively throw it. In the end, England just lost – as they could well do to Colombia.
The South American side reached the quarter-finals in 2014, a stage England’s men’s team haven’t reached since 2006.
In some ways, the match-throwing ‘scandal’ could make the perfect distraction from the performance of the England team should they lose this match. It could shelter them from the worst of the media ire and leave them fresh, without personal baggage, to perform well in the next tournament.
On the other hand, the continued conversation will be as unbearably dull as the England vs Belgium match was. It’s for the good of everyone – except perhaps Colombia – if England win, then.
How they got on in the groups
We all know how England did. A thrilling first half against Tunisia was followed by a slightly stale second half, rescued by Harry Kane’s back-post header. Set pieces were the king of the day against Panama, although it again highlighted England’s occasional struggles to create from open play.
And then Belgium.
With so many changes on both sides, finding meaning in the match against Belgium is difficult. England weren’t even set up in a complete like-for-like, nor were they really playing a different system.
It was more different players in the same system, who didn’t suit the roles of that system. Jamie Vardy, Marcus Rashford, and Fabian Delph are never going to have the same attacking interplay that Harry Kane, Raheem Sterling, and Jesse Lingard are going to have.
The main thing of note was that England are vulnerable to space opening up in front of their central defenders, around the Jordan Henderson role. This was identified after the first two games but was more apparent against the talents of Belgium.
As for Colombia, they spent their first match against Japan down to ten men for almost the entirety, which skews things more than a little.
They were, be all accounts, thrilling against Poland, winning 3-0 and deserving it – but then the final match against Senegal, a 1-0 win, was a little odd.
They took just four shots through the entire match, and that wasn’t because they scored early and then shut the game down to see it out. Yerry Mina’s header from a corner came in the 74th minute and was their final shot of the game.
It’s all a combination of games which makes predicting what will happen in their round of 16 tie quite difficult. England have mainly performed well via set-pieces against lesser nations, while Colombia have had a good game, an ok game, and a write-off.
They may also be missing James Rodríguez, who went off with a calf injury in the Senegal game. His absence would make life much easier for England, who might otherwise be worried about the effect that he and Juan Quintero could have in the gaps around the Henderson role. Without him, Colombia will likely be a far less dynamic side.
For England, the combination play of the central midfield-strikers square will be key. This was where the joy in the first half against Tunisia came from and is what gives the attack its dynamic movement. Colombia’s twin central midfielders will need to do their best to keep a handle on it.
Both teams will need to be wary of their opponents’ strength from set-pieces. England’s routines are now well-known, but Colombia have scored two of their five goals from dead-ball opportunities too.
Both nations go into this tie with reasons to feel confident and it would be very England to go out to Colombia, extending their streak of major tournaments without a knockout round win and more generally repeating the Iceland experience.
A lot probably rests on James Rodríguez’s fitness. The dynamism and creativity that he brings comes in the one area where England are weakest, and Colombia will be a much easier proposition if they have to line up without him.
England fans love a good omen though. Last time the Three Lions played Colombia at a World Cup a man with the initials DA (Darren Anderton) scored, as well as a goal from a set-piece. Dele Alli might return for the match on Tuesday, and we all know how strong England are from set-plays.
Is it coming home?