It’s coming home. Well, that’s what we are all meant to believe right? England have been handed the kindest World Cup knockout stage draw, perhaps ever, and in a tournament where expectations were low, England fans cannot help but believe once again.
This was ‘masterminded’ by Gareth Southgate making eight changes and leaving Harry Kane on the bench in the top of Group G decider against Belgium. A 1-0 loss took England into the opposing half of the draw to the heavyweights of France, Brazil and the Belgians.
Of course, the Three Lions have been aided by the failure of Germany, who didn't get out of the group of the first time in history, with contenders Chile, Italy and the Netherlands all failing to qualify for Russia 2018 altogether. After those casualties, few anticipated Spain to follow suit with a 4-3 penalty heartbreak loss to hosts Russia, making England the only previous World Cup winners remaining on their side of the draw.
Southgate’s men must get through the tough task of Colombia first, however. The South Americans are ranked two places higher than England in the FIFA rankings at tenth, but Colombia have never beaten England before, and have only reached the World Cup quarter-finals once before: four years ago in Brazil. Star man and 2014 Golden Boot winner James Rodriguez is an injury doubt, giving England the slight favourites tag. So, if England get past the Colombians, what does the rest of the tournament hold?
Saturday, July 7
3pm BST, 10am ET
Samara Arena, Samara
Story so far: 1-0 vs South Korea, 1-2 vs Germany, 3-0 vs Mexico (1st in Group F); 1-0 vs Switzerland
Preferred formation: 4-4-2
Top goal scorer: Andreas Granqvist (2)
FIFA World Ranking: 24
Best World Cup finish: Runners-up 1958
It looked unlikely for Sweden to make it to the knockout stages after a bitter 2-1 loss to defending champions Germany, and at that stage you would have got fantastic odds on them topping Group F. A brilliant 3-0 win over Mexico coupled with Germany’s shock 2-0 loss to South Korea saw Janne Andersson’s men earn a Round of 16 clash with Switzerland.
It’s the most underwhelming tie in the last 16, and if England could handpick their quarter-final opponent, it would be Sweden. In a lethargic game against Switzerland, the Swedes just had the edge, keeping it tight at the back and taking one of their chances going forward. They are patient out of possession, so England must look after the ball to ensure they do not get caught on the counter.
Semi-final: Russia or Croatia
Wednesday, July 11
7pm BST, 2pm ET
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
(Photo credit: Carl Recine)
Story so far: 5-0 vs Saudi Arabia, 3-1 vs Egypt, 0-3 vs Uruguay (2nd in Group A); 1-1 vs Spain (4-3 on penalties)
Preferred formation: 5-4-1/4-2-3-1
Top goal scorer: Artem Dzyuba, Denis Cheryshev (3)
FIFA World Ranking: 70
Best World Cup finish: Quarter-finals 2018
Few would have expected Russia, the lowest-ranked team in the tournament, to have made it past the Round of 16, but with the crowd behind them, they shocked 2010 champions Spain on penalties in Moscow. After starting the tournament with eight goals in two games, head coach Stanislav Cherchesov has had to adjust to combat the superior nations.
How they would play against England is unclear, and we would certainly know much more after their quarter-final clash with Croatia, where they will be underdogs once more. The worry for Russia is their ageing defence, with Sergei Ignashevich (38) and the 34-year-old Yuri Zhirkov still heavily called upon.
(Photo credit: Max Rossi)
Story so far: 2-0 vs Nigeria, 3-0 vs Argentina, 2-1 vs Iceland (1st in Group D); 1-1 vs Denmark (3-2 on penalties)
Preferred formation: 4-1-4-1
Top goal scorer: Luka Modric (2)
FIFA World Ranking: 20
Best World Cup finish: Third place 1998
Croatia have been one of the best teams in the tournament, but they did look out of ideas in their Round of 16 tie with Denmark. Croatia wrestled back the initiative after conceding inside the first minute, but they rarely threatened the Danish goal in the second half. Luka Modric should have clinched the game from the spot in extra time, and in the end, it was some Danijel Subasic heroics in the shootout that got them into the last eight.
The midfield pairing of Modric and Ivan Rakitic is strong, but that could suit England’s counter-attacking game, especially against the defensive lapses thrown up by Sime Vrsaljko, Dejan Lovren, Domagoj Vida and Ivan Strinic.
Sunday, July 15
4pm BST, 11am ET
Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow
(Photo credit: John Sibley)
Story so far: 2-1 vs Australia, 1-0 vs Peru, 0-0 vs Denmark (1st in Group C); 4-3 vs Argentina
Preferred formation: 4-3-3/4-2-3-1
Top goal scorer: Kylian Mbappe (3)
FIFA World Ranking: 7
Best World Cup finish: Winners 1998
England do have a realistic chance of making the final on paper, but there would still have to be a few more upsets on the other side of the draw to give them a genuine chance of winning a first World Cup in over 50 years. France, after a flat group stage, showed their attacking talent against Argentina in the game of the tournament so far, winning 4-3.
On paper, France have one of the best starting line-ups in the world, but they have picked up a reputation as chokers in recent times. Les Bleus lost in the final in 2006, didn’t make it past the group in 2010 and missed out to Germany in the quarters four years ago. In their home tournament in Euro 2016, they lost to a Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal in the final. Can this young side escape their demons and end their own 20 years of hurt?
(Photo credit: Murad Sezer)
Story so far: 1-0 vs Egypt, 1-0 vs Saudi Arabia, 3-0 vs Russia (1st in Group A); 2-1 vs Portugal
Preferred formation: 4-1-2-1-2/4-4-2
Top goal scorer: Edinson Cavani (3)
FIFA World Ranking: 14
Best World Cup finish: Winners 1930, 1940 (2 times)
A nasty team to come up against. Uruguay may not be easy on the eye, but they are irritatingly efficient and have performed very well in recent World Cups. The South Americans finished fourth in 2010, and you wouldn’t bet against them topping that after conceding just once in four games out in Russia.
With the Atletico Madrid partnership of Diego Godin and Jose Maria Gimenez at the back and of course the strike force of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani in attack, Uruguay have the tools to beat any opponent. The weakness does come in midfield, however. If England can utilise their midfield runners effectively and spread the play with their wing-backs, they have a chance.
(Photo credit: David Gray)
Story so far: 1-1 vs Switzerland, 2-0 vs Costa Rica, 2-0 vs Serbia (1st in Group E); 2-0 vs Mexico
Preferred formation: 4-3-3
Top goal scorer: Philippe Coutinho, Neymar (2)
FIFA World Ranking: 2
Best World Cup finish: Winners 1958, 1962, 1970, 1994, 2002 (5 times)
The favourites for the World Cup, and if you think England can beat Brazil you need to put down your drink. Brazil haven’t been their usual dynamic selves in the tournament so far, but that is the most concerning thing for the opposition. You don’t want to peak too soon in tournament football, and Brazil have got better in every game they have played.
In Tite’s 25-game reign as Brazil manager, they have won 20, lost just once, scored 52 and conceded just six. So where is the weakness? Perhaps now holding the favourites tag could hinder them, but Mexico did trouble the Brazilian defence on a few occasions on the counter and had their decision-making been better, that 2-0 win for Brazil could have been a lot closer.
(Photo credit: Toru Hanai)
Story so far: 3-0 vs Panama, 5-2 vs Tunisia, 1-0 vs England (1st in Group G); 3-2 vs Japan
Preferred formation: 3-4-3
Top goal scorer: Romelu Lukaku (4)
FIFA World Ranking: 7
Best World Cup finish: Fourth place 1986
Belgium did defeat England in a fairly drab 1-0 win during the group stages, but it was a bit of an anomaly of a result. 18 changes were made across the two sides, as neither nation was desperate to win, with the loser going into the ‘kinder’ side of the draw.
The Red Devils had to come back from 2-0 down in the second half to steal a 3-2 win against Japan, but that result could be a massive psychological boost for Roberto Martinez and his men. It looks to be the last tournament with their golden generation, and having stumbled on the big stage before, most notably at Euro 2016 against Wales, to come back from an upset will be huge. Not only that, Belgian looked far more astute with a three-man midfield when chasing the game against Japan. Martinez must create more space for Kevin De Bruyne who hasn’t been able to have a real impact on the tournament thus far.