Sam Pilger: Forget momentum – England can now dare to dream in Russia

England fans are accustomed to disappointment, but a World Cup draw has not looked this inviting for 28 years....

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Rarely before has a World Cup defeat been embraced with such euphoria.

But England’s 1-0 loss to Belgium on Thursday night, which some England fans openly celebrated, has now placed them on a realistic path to reaching the semi-finals at this tournament.

Some might have decried Gareth Southgate making eight changes, and while it did force us all to endure that tepid game against the similarly disinterested Belgians, it should now be clear that the England manager may well have pulled off a minor masterstroke.

A victory against Belgium in Kaliningrad on Thursday would have placed England in the significantly harder side of the draw, firstly against Japan, but then against Brazil in the quarter-finals. Get through those and it would probably be Argentina or France in the last four.

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Instead a narrow defeat has given them a round of sixteen tie against Colombia, and should they progress, a quarter-final against either Sweden or Switzerland.

The last time England had such an ostensibly simple path to the semi-finals was in 1990, when their opponents were Belgium and Cameroon, who they both beat to reach the last four where they should have then beaten West Germany before succumbing on penalties. There is a romanticism and wistfulness attached to Italia 90, because England know how close they came to reaching the final, where they would likely have beaten a poor Argentinian side.

Since then England’s route to the semi-finals has been barred by a succession of heavyweights; in 1998 it was Argentina in the round of sixteen, in 2002 it was a Brazil side, blessed with Ronaldo, Ronaldinho and Rivaldo, in the quarter-finals, in 2006 it was Portugal and the emerging genius of Cristiano Ronaldo in the quarter-finals, in 2010 it was Germany in the round of sixteen, and in 2014 they were bundled out in the group stage after defeats to both Italy and Uruguay.

But for the next two games, there is no such threatening obstacles, just Colombia and then Sweden and Switzerland. Two wins and they would stand just a game from the World Cup final. England now have their best chance in a generation of reaching the semi-finals of the World Cup, for what would be only the third time in their entire history.

While the wins against Tunisia and Panama were naturally enjoyed, the weakness of the opposition always tempered any optimism, but now with the task in the knock-out rounds clearly laid out in front of them, those semi-ironic chants of ‘It’s coming home’ don’t seem as ridiculous now.

But Southgate’s critics contend England have now lost momentum by losing to Belgium, and have effectively thrown away everything they had built up in those opening two wins.

Momentum is an incredibly overrated concept in sport, which we have seen in just the last week at the World Cup.

Nigeria had momentum when they faced a battered Argentina in their final group game but ended up losing and being knocked out; Mexico too had momentum after two wins, including over the defending champions Germany, but lost 3-0 to Sweden, and most starkly of all, the Germans themselves had momentum after their dramatic last minute win over Sweden, but could only produce an insipid display against South Korea to lose 2-0, and are now back home or hastily arranging an early than expected holiday.

England still have the momentum they gained from those opening two wins, but it was parked up on Thursday night against the Belgians and wisely not exposed to any harm.

When England take to the field against Colombia at the Spartak stadium in Moscow on Tuesday night they will still be fuelled by the same confidence of the opening two games; Harry Kane will be fresh and looking to add to his 5 goals, Jesse Lingard will still be looking to continue his incredible form, and so will the rest of the squad.

The defeat to Belgium has done little to harm England, in fact it did the opposite and has probably created even more belief and optimism.
Rather than losing a day to recovery after playing against Belgium, the majority of England’s first team will now be fresh and able to start preparing immediately for Tuesday night’s round of sixteen game, which could also go in to extra-time.

Of course, it would be typical of England to conjure up a defeat against Colombia, and then the recriminations would begin, but at this moment Southgate has plotted the right path.

The England manager was prepared to sacrifice the Belgium game for the greater good. His whole approach with England has been to look at the long-term, which is what he has again done here.

England fans are of course accustomed to disappointment, but maybe, just maybe they can dare to dream this summer, because a World Cup draw has not looked this inviting for 28 years.

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