Haven’t we been here before? Just when we had started to believe that maybe, just maybe, football might be coming home, England were found wanting when it really mattered. Moscow 2018 will now be filed along with Turin 1990, Wembley 1996 and England’s other glorious failures. Once again, when football immortality beckoned, England couldn’t grasp their opportunity.
Going into the tournament Gareth Southgate had been at great pains to downplay his team’s chances, to dilute the usual euphoric, if misguided, sense of expectation that has seen previous squads wilt under the pressure; but the way the tournament opened up, with the really big names exiting earlier than expected and England finding themselves on the easier side of the draw meant that we all started to believe again.
Through the cold hard light of analysis it is easy to say that England flattered to deceive, the only real result being the win over an average at best Sweden side in the quarter final; but they won back the hearts of a footballing nation once again. The disaster in Nice against Iceland two years ago was all but forgotten as for once the stars had aligned and it really started to feel that maybe it was going to be our year. Ultimately though we couldn’t see it out.
It all started with so much promise, Trippier’s brilliant free kick the early goal that we felt sure we would need against a side that had proven its endurance with penalty shootout wins in both their two knockout fixtures; but we couldn’t press home our advantage in the first half. When the inevitable Croat fightback came in the second half we couldn’t control the game: needlessly conceding possession time and again when calmer, more experienced, game management was the order of the day.
When Perišić equalised midway through the second half we knew we had it all to do yet it was hard to discern whether we knew how to do it. Increasingly we looked like we were hanging on; hoping desperately that the football gods would open up the path for us, but they didn’t. Instead Croatia continued in the ascendancy and ultimately Mandzukic’s extra-time winner felt more inevitable than surprising.
So there is no date with destiny, no redemption for glorious failures of the past but this time what England did was to win back the disillusioned and the downright fed up, and for a few weeks they captured the hearts of a nation once again.
In contrast, France’s win over Belgium on Tuesday was controlled and professional just as it had been on the previous Friday when they eliminated Uruguay. After weathering the initial storm in which Belgium looked to get the ball into the box early to exploit the aerial prowess of Fellaini and Lukaku, Les Bleus gradually got a grip of the midfield and subsequently control of the game.
As the game progressed, much to the annoyance of Mrs Football Nerd who for reasons of ancestral heritage and frustration at continually being upset by England’s glorious failures of the nineties, is very much a France supporter; former Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud was at his annoyingly wasteful worst, spurning several good chances.
However just as they had against Uruguay, France showed that they carry a threat from set-pieces when Umtiti surprisingly beat Fellaini to Griezmann’s near post corner to put France into a lead that they would hold onto for the remainder of the match.
Impressive enough in the first half, teenage attacking sensation Kylian Mbappé really came to the fore in the second half; the absolute highlight of his significant contribution was an exquisite drag-back and back-heel to set-up Giroud for yet another chance that he wasted.
It was however France’s resilience in midfield with the indefatigable N’Golo Kanté everywhere and even Paul Pogba showing a discipline not yet seen in his time in the Premier League, combined with a resolute defence, that saw France home.
It took Didier Deschamps’ men a while to get going in this tournament, but having come through the clearly tougher half of the draw with some highly impressive displays, they will undoubtedly be favourites going into Sunday’s Final against Croatia.