When England sacked Sam Allardyce almost two years ago, the national team looked in a state of disarray. Qualification for the 2018 World Cup in Russia was not guaranteed, there was no clear vision for a style of play to suit an ageing squad, and there was less than little faith amongst even the most ardent of supporters.
Fast forward to July 2018, and suddenly England have their most viable chance at making a World Cup final for the first time in a generation.
How? Enter Gareth Southgate. The man who led the under-21s to European Championships failure, the same man who wasn’t trusted beyond a four game interim role upon initially being asked to take the reins.
Since beginning with a 2-0 win over Malta back in October 2016, Southgate has implemented his own style within the team, brought through a number of debutants and youngsters, and created a warm team spirit that is clear for all to see. The efficiency of all of his changes may be up for debate, but the fortune he finds himself in at this current moment is not.
On England’s side of the knockout stages, there remains six teams – one of which are guaranteed to make the World Cup final – who sit outside of the top ten of FIFA’s official World Rankings.
With 65th placed Russia – the lowest ranked nation from day one of the tournament – over coming Spain in the round of 16, there remains no more ‘big guns’ for England to face en route to the final, on paper at least.
18th placed Croatia are already through and awaiting a quarter-final tie with Russia, with Switzerland (11th) and Sweden (25th) still to play. Those around England certainly possess their own qualities, but only one has a goalscorer in the stature of Harry Kane.
That one being the evening’s opponents, Colombia. Radamel Falcao may have endured a tough spell in England, but his antics with Atletico Madrid and Porto particularly have earned him a stellar reputation worldwide. He averages a goal roughly every 1.4 games, almost identical to that of the much younger Spurs striker, and it may well take all three of Southgate’s preferred centre-backs to mark him out of the game.
The key man for the Colombians will be James Rodriguez, assuming he passes a late fitness test having struggled physically already in the tournament. His performances certainly haven’t taken the brunt of his injuries though, as the 2014 Golden Boot winner has assisted twice in three appearances.
Croatia may have the strongest team man for man in the tournament, but arguably no one mixes the same creative threat and goal scoring prowess as the Colombians. England’s biggest hurdle in their most viable hunt to make a World Cup final for the first time in a generation comes in their first knockout game, and though it’s certainly not plain sailing from their on out, Southgate’s men should certainly start believing that anything is possible.