Are things really, finally different for England at this World Cup?

Leander Schaerlaeckens

It’s supposed to be different this time.

This, they say, is a new England. Young and talented and brash and unburdened by half a century of failure, infighting and disappointment. This, allegedly, is a kind of England 2.0.

Everything has broken right for England at this World Cup. It sauntered through a top-heavy group with Belgium, conveniently dropping its final game against the Red Devils in a barely-contested 1-0 loss. Because that put the unappreciated but savvy England manager Gareth Southgate and his team in the soft half of the incredibly lopsided knockout stage bracket.

All England had to do was beat Colombia, and the path to a first final since 1966 – the only time England has won either the World Cup or the European Championships – would lead through Sweden and either Russia or Croatia. You couldn’t hope to have an easier route.

What’s more: Colombia, which hadn’t exactly advanced from the group stage comfortably, was without star playmaker James Rodriguez. He makes that team tick but was hurt in the first half against Senegal, Colombia’s final group stage game.

England’s Harry Kane, right, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, centre, and Kieran Trippier celebrate at the end of the round of 16 match between Colombia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. England won after a penalty shoot out. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)
England’s Harry Kane, right, goalkeeper Jordan Pickford, centre, and Kieran Trippier celebrate at the end of the round of 16 match between Colombia and England at the 2018 soccer World Cup in the Spartak Stadium, in Moscow, Russia, Tuesday, July 3, 2018. England won after a penalty shoot out. (AP Photo/Victor R. Caivano)

The soccer universe, it seemed, was smiling on its most tortured national team. After a group-stage exit in 2014 and a Round of 16 elimination in 2010, the likelihood was that England could reach a first semifinal since 1990.

Which, of course, suggested that England would find some new, horrible way of blowing it. This is England, after all, specialists in underperformance. The odds were good that they would lose a game they should have won in some improbable way. Or, worse still, on penalties.

Indeed, England’s shootout victory over Colombia in Moscow on Tuesday, after the game ended 1-1, was shaping up just to be that sort of game. England controlled the game until the late going. Colombia was painfully James-less, mostly just bunkering in and trying to hit England on feckless breakaways, without any success.

The English painstakingly pecked away at the Colombian structure, hoping to spot a seam for them shoulder their way through in a combative game. But it was tough going, the English never really getting close in the first half.

Colombia, understanding that it was overmatched, indulged in the dark arts of cheap shots, intimidation, provocation and referee-manipulation. It was all fairly shameless. Wilmar Barrios headbutted Jordan Henderson in the chin while tussling in the wall for a free kick. American referee Mark Geiger gave a yellow, refusing to consult a VAR replay that would have shown a pretty evident red card.

But eventually, England was rewarded for keeping its cool against an opponent hell-bent on unsettling it into mistakes. In the 54th minute, Carlos Sanchez inexplicably climbed onto the back of Harry Kane – not the first time a Colombian had broken out a wrestling move – and Geiger awarded the penalty.

The American, however, tolerated an awful lot of shouting, looking rather soft in his refusal to crack down on it. Indeed, it took more than three minutes for him to reassert control and allow Kane to take his kick. All the while, there were Colombian shenanigans going on.

England kept its composure as Colombia made a late assault, only really giving a big chance to Juan Cuadrado. At long last, the English seemed to have produced a team capable of standing the pressure of this sort of heart-stopping knockout game. The young Lions coped amazingly well with the sort of battle of attrition you just don’t see in their Premier League, where Colombia’s win-at-all-costs campaign would have been considered unforgivable gauche.

But then. Naturally. Of course.

Well into injury time, a long shot out of nowhere blazed towards Jordan Pickford’s goal. He could only just punch it over. And, of course, because of course, on the ensuing corner, Yerry Mina rose highest and bounced his header over Kieran Trippier on the goal-line. Trippier deflected it into his own net off the underside of the bar.

It was Mina’s third goal at the World Cup, all scored with his head. And it ran entirely against the grain of the game.

In extra time, England grew jittery, misplacing routine long balls. Colombia finally seized control. Predictably for a game that had drained both teams long before another half hour was tacked onto the end of the game, the affair slogged to penalties. It seemed, as it had at the start of the game, that England’s ultimate demise was sort of inevitable, a fait accompli before the game was well and truly over.

There was no explaining or quantifying it, exactly. It just felt that way. Because that’s how it always goes for England.

They’d already been knocked out of three World Cups on penalties – tied with Spain and Italy for the record. So when the game went to spot kicks, even the surest of Englishmen must have doubted their convictions.

After all, this England team was so young. Would its youth finally catch up to it? Pickford, charged with saving at least one penalty, was representing England for just the seventh time. Just three players on the England team are over 28, only one of whom is a starter. Going into the game, Henderson had the most caps of anyone in the lineup, with a mere 41.

So when Henderson was denied by David Ospina’s excellent dive in the third round of kicks, that seemed to be that. But Mateus Uribe hit the bar and then Pickford parried Carlos Bacca with a strong hand. Eric Dier converted the winner, only just.

In a single night, England had vanquished a whole pack of its demons. Now Sweden awaits. And more demons too. And more chances to show that England really is renewed.

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a Yahoo Sports soccer columnist and a sports communication lecturer at Marist College. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.

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