England’s progress is set to come under serious examination when they battle Colombia, potentially robbed of star playmaker James Rodriguez’s services, in World Cup 2018’s round of 16.
The Three Lions gained renown for dispatching minnows Tunisia and Panama. Then a widely debated decision to field back-ups led to a 1-0 loss to Belgium to finish second in Group G, from which a comfortable route to the last-four opened up.
For Colombia, they recovered from losing with 10 men against Japan to beat Poland and Senegal. Group H’s winners, however, are sweating on Rodriguez’s availability because of a lingering calf complaint.
Here are the talking points ahead of Tuesday’s clash at Spartak Stadium:
ENGLAND’S KNOCKOUT BLOWS
Only England head coach Gareth Southgate will know whether he actively sought the path of least resistance.
After the brouhaha caused when dusting off the stiffs for a soulless 1-0 defeat to second-string Belgium when Group G reached an unseemly end, comes reality.
Colombia, followed by either Sweden or Switzerland. Rather than Japan, followed by Brazil or Mexico.
A combined tally of two World Cups won on their side of the draw, compared to 10 on the other.
Thursday’s failure has gained obvious reward.
Regardless of Colombia’s obvious strengths, and a fair few weaknesses, England face their friendliest run to the World Cup semi-finals since 1990.
But this is not the end of the debate. Not by a long shot.
Since the Three Lions lifted the hallowed Jules Rimet Trophy in 1966, football’s founding nation has suffered knockout blow after knockout blow.
They’ve won just five matches in 52 years once the group games are done – two of these coming during a special Italian summer soundtracked by Luciano Pavarotti when Belgium and Cameroon were conquered.
The other victims were Paraguay in 1986, Denmark in 2002 and Ecuador in 2006. Hardly a list of heavyweights.
This situation can be viewed in contrasting fashion.
Either England have not earned the right to feel comfortable about any opponent, or the avoidance of a likely quarter-final against Brazil was worth pursuing no matter the cost in lost momentum.
The truth will out, beginning at Spartak Stadium.
Defenders must be on their best behaviour in the Russian capital.
Colombia and England have been this edition’s set-piece kings. Between them, nine goals have come via corner-kicks, free-kicks or penalties.
For the South Americans, this represents three efforts from five in total. A figure that include Porto-owned playmaker Juan Quintero’s daisy cutter in the opening 2-1 loss to Japan, plus Barcelona centre-back Yerry Mina’s towering headers in the 3-0 defeat of Poland and 1-0 victory against Senegal – courtesy of Everton anchor man Idrissa Gueye’s schoolboy defending.
The Three Lions have dead balls to thank for six of their eight strikes. Some turnaround from Harry Kane’s perplexing output at Euro 2016.
The Tottenham superstar bagged from two corners in the 2-1 win against Tunisia, plus put away a brace of penalties in the 6-1 routing of Panama.
Manchester City centre-back John Stones also got two against the Central Americans from set-pieces.
The supreme delivery of Spurs wing-back Kieran Trippier has been central to this profitable return.
A raft of 6ft-plus figures will be eager to strike again at Spartak. Mina is joined by fellow centre-back Davinson Sanchez for the Colombians.
The latter’s inside knowledge from Spurs could help combat the likes of club-mate Kane, Stones and Leicester City giant Harry Maguire.
Air supremacy should carry the day.
COLOMBIA ARE IN A JAM
The expression on Colombia head coach Jose Pekerman’s face did not betray much joy about progression to the knockouts.
Images of Rodriguez pounding the turf in pain just 31 minutes into the Senegal denouement flooded his mind. Describing the Bayern Munich loanee as ‘essential’ to the nation’s hopes does not do his influence justice.
“I’m very concerned, it’s very worrying,” said Pekerman, who in a best-case scenario will only have a half-fit playmaker to select after another flare up of a nagging calf problem.
“It’s a very difficult situation for us. I do not know where he stands right now.
“I can’t say any more because I just don’t know.”
Rodriguez, of course, struck six times during the 2014 edition to fire Colombia to the quarter-finals for the first time. With them, he earned both the Golden Boot and a blockbuster move to Real Madrid.
This summer, the 26-year-old could only play the final 30 minutes in the opening reversal to Japan. But his virtuoso display against Poland, which included the pass of the tournament for Juan Cuadrado’s breakaway, spoke of his enduring ability – and importance.
Quintero’s impish skills have helped fill Rodriguez’s gap in absentia. His renaissance could be tested again versus England.