England take on Colombia in the last 16 of the World Cup on Tuesday – a game Gareth Southgate rates as the country’s biggest for a decade.
Here, Press Association Sport looks at the key issues on the eve of the match.
Southgate courted a backlash by making sweeping changes to his side for the final group game against Belgium but did so with complete clarity of purpose. As well as giving game time to his squad men his primary motivation was to keep his key players fresh for the rigours of knockout football. Much was made of a possible loss of momentum but if key men like Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson and Kieran Trippier turn up looking fresh and ready to set the tempo that will go a long way to vindicating the gamble. If extra-time beckons, his caution will surely be proved right.
Let’s get this out of the way nice and early. Knockout football means the possibility of penalties. The Three Lions must be the only side still in Russia who have been answering detailed questions about their spot-kick preparations since March and the national obsession over the subject can only have intensified after two tense shootouts on Sunday. The numbers are grim – England losing six of their seven tournament attempts – but Southgate played his own role in that sorry story in 1996 and has worked tirelessly to change the record. If it goes wrong again it will not be for lack of preparation.
Jordan Pickford had never played a competitive match for his country before this tournament and, after three group games, he is still waiting for a clean sheet. His performance against Belgium was sketchy, with some unconvincing glovework and a surprising critique from opposite number Thibaut Courtois. The Chelsea goalkeeper drew attention to Pickford’s height, suggesting his stature contributed to Adnan Januzaj’s winner. If there was ever a time to justify his selection ahead of Jack Butland, it is now.
Kane leads the line, the team and the race for the golden boot. Much of Colombia’s pre-match analysis will have centred around how they can keep the prolific striker quiet – with his Tottenham team-mate Davinson Sanchez on hand as expert witness. His likely partner in attack, Raheem Sterling, comes in looking comparatively toothless on paper. By the time the game kicks off the last of his two England goals will be 999 days in the rear view mirror. Southgate is confident the drought will break soon, convinced by Sterling’s 23 goals for Manchester City last season and visibly improved positional play. Can he stop the clock before it hits 1000?
England are past masters at allowing fitness concerns over key men to derail them on the big stage but Dele Alli has been their only real worry in Russia and now appears ready for duty. Colombia, meanwhile, have been sweating for days over James Rodriguez – the breakout star of 2014 and a proven game-changer at this level. The smoke signals appear to suggest he will not start the match. How badly will they miss him if he is consigned to bench duty and how ready will he really be to perform if he is called on mid-match?
- Press Association