Pickford spikes the coffee


Pickford spikes the coffee

In the end it came down to penalties and for once England had done their homework.

In winning their first World Cup shootout, the Three Lions proved the edge that analytical and intelligent preparation gives.

Gareth Southgate had spoken a week earlier about getting his squad to study the psychology of shootouts, analysing why England kept tripping up at that particular hurdle.

Individual kickers were assigned with taking their time, entering a calm mental space and delivering with aplomb what had been planned, in contrast to the hurried and nervous kicks which have knocked England out so many times, including one missed by Southgate himself at Euro '96.

His players looked calm on the approach and at the moment of delivery last night, with the exception of Jordan Henderson, who was bouncing the ball with his head down as he stepped up to the kick, which was saved by David Ospina, diving quickly to his left.

The Arsenal goalkeeper read Eric Dier's winning kick correctly too but was less rapid in leaping down to his right, only managing to get fingertips on the ball.

Colombia missed two penalties by contrast, which let Henderson off the hook. Mateus Uribe's showed the danger of going high and hard as his effort cannoned off the crossbar, while Carlos Bacca's fateful kick was too close to the middle.

Hit low, hard and into the corner remains the best recipe for success from nine yards, although cleverer players will fire down the middle when they are sure the keeper will dive, or even do a Panenka.

Jordan Pickford, England's green but agile custodian, confirmed afterwards he had studied each kicker's modus operandi and only Falcao had failed to revert to type. Preparation paid off.

1-1 was a fair finish to a match with few real chances. Colombia began handicapped by James Rodriguez's calf strain. Their three goals against Poland were all down to him and to have taken England through 120 minutes unbeaten without his arsenal of talents to deploy must rate as some achievement.

Indeed, given England's lack of dominance, with the Bayern playmaker fit, one suspects the result would have gone the other way.

Probably to keep England on their toes, the Colombian camp had given out the message that James' injury was nothing serious, but insiders revealed he had not trained since their win over Senegal and there was no way he was going to start in Moscow.

For 2014's Golden Boot winner and the golden boy of Colombian football, it was another cruel way to exit the World Cup, exiled to the stands, where he slumped alone in tears following the shootout.

Los Cafeteros had periods of domination and the pace of Juan Cuadrado and physicality of Falcao were constant threats in the last third. When full backs Santiago Arias and Johan Mohica flew up the wings, for a while it looked like England might wilt.

But not quite. Juan Quintero had been billed as exploding onto the world stage with big clubs holding their attention, much like what happened to James in 2014, but for all his flashes of neat control and clever positioning, too often ruined the moment with an overhit final ball.

Like Marouane Fellaini the night before, Yerry Mina proved the value of a tall and awkward customer at crosses and set pieces and ended up his nation's unlikely top scorer in the tournament with three.

Yet Carlos Sanchez, sent off in one minute versus Japan, again let his side down by hugging and then rugby-tackling Harry Kane smack in front of the referee to give away a penalty. Some Colombians, and Diego Maradona, insisted Kane had fouled him first but the abundance of physical contact was too much for the referee to realistically ignore.

Post-match, Colombia coach Jose Pekerman urged for clarification on contact in the box, adding to comments from Falcao and others that some English players went to ground too easily, and that the American referee Mark Geiger had been less than even-handed, showing six yellow cards to Colombia but only two to England.

Pekerman must have been rattled as four years ago following rotation Brazilian fouling on James in the quarter final and slack refereeing, he refused to blame either Brazil or the officials in his post-match conference.

Yet since his team briefly looked like losing their heads and earning red cards, the manager must shoulder some blame for not calming them down immediately. It was hard to believe this same team won FIFA's Fair Play Award at Brazil 2014.

With the score at 0-0, the game briefly threatened to descend into another Battle of Santiago, the infamous Chile v Italy clash from the 1962 finals. Geiger might have followed the rules but lacked the presence to reduce the tension while it was boiling over.

Colombia are not known as a dirty team, which made their behaviour curious. Perhaps it was an inferiority complex appearing, as if they felt bending the rules was the only way to derail a more talented opponent. They need not have gone down that route as they still had the talent without James to take England on.

Both sets of supporters had gripes about Geiger: Many English fans were angry that he only showed a yellow card to Wilmar Barrios for headbutting Jordan Henderson and ignored the scuffing of the penalty spot, while their Colombian counterparts have been piling into the American on social media for apparent bias towards the Three Lions.

Things thankfully cooled down after the break, not least because Colombia's substitutions refocused their team and they had the better of extra-time, though failed to make Pickford work much, Uribe's speculative rocket in the 93rd minute notwithstanding.

Colombia leave the World Cup sad at their failure to repeat their last eight achievement of 2014, cursing their bad luck in losing their best player but proud their side went down fighting, although England would say quite literally.

England were second best towards the end of normal time and for the first period of extra time, which could bode ill for future matches in the tournament.

Southgate's team has a solid shape but all teams need to morph according to game events and for the first time last night, against quality opposition, they were forced to rethink.

In Pickford they have a young custodian brimming with confidence who leaps like a salmon and flies like a bird.

The real stars are both defenders who before the tournament were virtually fringe players. Harry McGuire still has only nine caps but plays like an old hand, commanding in the air, dominant in the box and assured on the ground.

Kieran Trippier meanwhile is a natural wing back who is fast, has good positional play and supplies more dangerous crosses than any other player.

Up front, Harry Kane is netting reliably whether from penalties or open play but his lieutenants Dele Alli and Raheem Sterling still have question marks hanging over them after yet another next to invisible pair of performances.

The team is so reliant on Kane that if a canny defence can shut him down, one wonders where England's goals will come from. The lack of a playmaker in the squad could yet come back to haunt Southgate.

England did not score in open play in Moscow and have now gone over four hours without finding the net without winning a penalty, a salient point which should temper the growing euphoria back home.

But having flown in under the radar, English enthusiasm and self-confidence are now on the march, conscious of how on paper the Three Lions have their best chance of returning to the final since their annus mirabilis of 1966.

Colombia at least won the noise battle at the Spartak Stadium. They heavily outnumbered English supporters, leading Southgate to label it "almost an away match" for his side.

The 40,000-strong Cafetero fan base in Russia brought some exotic colour to unaccustomed surroundings. Now they are packing up and making the long journey home with melancholy but also memories to treasure.

There is no match trip like experiencing a World Cup in person. England are still there.

(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile

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