Almost everyone involved in the penultimate quarter-final clash of the 2018 FIFA World Cup had been through a taxing journey to arrive in Samara. For England, it took 12 years of hurt since their last quarter-final appearance and an emotionally draining penalty shoot-out victory over Colombia in the Round of 16. Just to make it to the Russia, Sweden had to better the Netherlands in Group A of UEFA qualifying and then defeat Italy in qualification knock-outs. Once at the World Cup, they were required to outwit Germany and South Korea to finish second in their group.
For the several thousand England fans that have descended on this riverside Russian city, the transit options included overnight trains, connecting flights and chartered planes. Samara on the banks of the Volga is among the World Cup’s least accessible cities. For journalists in Kazan last night covering Belgium’s victory against Brazil, the journey demanded a 5.30am start and a bumpy six-hour bus ride across the Tatar Steppe’s sometimes-unpaved roads.
Given the endurance showed by all concerned in simply getting to Samara Arena, the teams could almost be forgiven for the turgid serving of football they offered on Saturday. Almost. England’s 2-0 victory sends them through to the semi-finals for the first-time in 28 years, a noteworthy achievement from Gareth Southgate – particularly given he did not even want the national team job. But otherwise, the Three Lions will be thankful this performance can soon be forgotten.
Sweden began well, their 4-4-2 formation expanding and contracting like an accordion during the opening stanza. The English were toothless, and the Swedes – hoping to play compact, counter-attacking football – also struggled to execute in the final third. It was a damning indication of the match’s dullness that the local “Ross-i-ya” chant, fast becoming a hallmark of the tournament, rung out after just 11 minutes. Russia’s clash with Croatia in Sochi is almost 2,000 kilometres away.
By the 25th minute, most observers had resigned themselves to another liaison with the penalty shoot-out soap opera. England were nervous, Jordan Henderson ineffective in the midfield and Harry Kane’s initial touches wayward. As if to compound the tainted spectacle, the Samara Arena – to be renamed the Cosmos Arena in a nod to the city’s space heritage when the FIFA suits leave – was dotted with empty seats. Samara’s inaccessibility limited travelling fans, while tickets are astronomically expensive on local salaries and Russia’s quarter-final appearance also diminished the local appetite to cheer on England.
Then came the Three Lions’ consistent saviour at this World Cup: set-pieces. A needlessly-conceded corner saw Harry Maguire rise like a salmon to meet Ashley Young’s delivery, powerfully heading home to give England the advantage. The set-piece goal was England’s eighth of the tournament of 11 in total; a significant deviation from the tournament’s group stage average, 43 percent.
Southgate’s team increased the tempo in the second-half and Dele Alli found the net to brighten an otherwise underwhelming performance from the Tottenham star. Raheem Sterling continued to be profligate in the opposition box; he remains scoreless at the tournament. While Sweden managed a number of chances late in the second half, it would prove too little, too late. Although only rarely challenged, Jordan Pickford was one of the few bright spots – seamlessly continuing his form from the Colombia clash with several strong saves.
As the match petered out, the main England section adopted a tactic perfected by the Barmy Army during many an Ashes tour to Australia: when the game is boring, make your own fun. England may not be well-represented in Russia – the number of travelling Brits pale in comparison to the various South American influxes – but the red and white-clad fans were in full voice. No prizes for guessing the chant of choice.
England’s clash with Sweden was billed as the country’s most important match in over a decade. Instead, it proved a major anti-climax. But the Three Lions are one step closer to bringing football home and that, ultimately, is all that matters. Even the England supporters who travelled on a chartered flight to Samara this morning, watched the match, and immediately returned to the airport are unlikely to be too upset. It is a long journey to the World Cup final, and the English are now just one step away.