England go into their World Cup last 16 match against Colombia knowing they have perhaps the best chance to win the tournament for the first time in 52 years, but a tricky and intelligent Colombia stand in their way.
In a World Cup that has thrown up a string of shock wins and exits, The Three Lions must surely have been buoyed by the surprising departures of holders Germany at the group stage and Spain to hosts Russia, as well as the much-fancied Portugal and Argentina.
With messrs Ramos, Kroos, Messi and Ronaldo all suffering early expulsion from the tournament, England are faced with making their way past a Colombia side who have found their form after a shock group stage opener loss to Japan.
England have enjoyed a fairly easy passage to the knockout stage, ensuring their place in the last 16 with one game to spare. Qualification was already sewn up before a 1-0 defeat against Belgium in the final Group G game, a fixture in which Gareth Southgate admitted he would rest players with one eye on this game.
Southgate has brought a refreshing blend of vision to the England setup and a steely courage to do what he believes is right for the good of the squad, evident in giving game time to fringe players, knowing their participation will be invaluable the further England go in the tournament.
Moscow’s Spartak Stadium will provide the stage for what should be a pulsating match. The ground is perhaps the most atmospheric of the 12 host venues, even more so than its more famous neighbor, Luzhniki Stadium, in the heart of the capital.
England have not fared particularly well against South American opposition in recent World Cup knockout stage games, although the last time the two teams met in the tournament was at France 98, a certain David Beckham scoring the second in a 2-0 win that day.
However, England were then defeated by Argentina in the next round in a match remembered as much for Beckham’s red card for lashing out at Diego Simeone, as it is for a young Michael Owen’s goal after tearing through the Argentine defense with a mazy run to net England’s second in a 2-2 draw. They would be eliminated on the dreaded penalties after extra time failed to separate the two sides.
England were also knocked out in the following World Cup by Brazil in 2002, this time at the quarter-final stage, although they did avenge a loss to Argentina in the group stage with a Beckham penalty to exorcise the demons of four years previously. In 2014 however, England faced early exit in Brazil when they went out at the group stage, a loss to South Americans Uruguay sealing their fate that year.
On Tuesday, England will come up against a cohesive Colombia side built around its own trio of stars consisting of James Rodríguez, Juan Cuadrado and Radamel Falcao. James has rediscovered some of the form that made him a global superstar at the last World Cup in Brazil, having lost his way somewhat after a move to Real Madrid following that tournament.
Cuadrado and veteran skipper Falcao were among the goals in the 3-0 hammering of Poland, who were many people’s dark horses in the tournament, although that list is invariably voluminous, and must be marked men by Southgate’s ever-changing backline which has conceded three goals in three games.
The return of skipper Harry Kane after being rested for that final group game will add firepower to the England frontline that was so lacking in Kaliningrad against the Belgians. The tournament’s top scorer has displayed a cold resolve and determination that dictates his mind is forever fixed on the job of finally meeting the expectation of their supporters in this World Cup.
Colombia are more than capable of prolonging the South American curse at World Cups, but with Harry Kane proving a spellbinding force in attack, England may well break their hoodoo in the Russian capital.