England has had a charmed run to the World Cup semi-finals, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t deserve to be there.
Gareth Southgate’s young side became just the third England team to reach the last four of the World Cup when it beat a flat Sweden side 2-0 in Samara.
It has outlasted Spain, Germany, Portugal, Argentina and Brazil in this tournament, but while the team’s run has triggering delirium back in England, others have been less than impressed.
By virtue of a loss to Belgium in its final group G game (after two easy and confidence-building wins against two of the tournament’s worst sides in Tunisia and Panama), England fortuitously fell into what was clearly the easier half of the World Cup draw.
While heavyweights Uruguay, Portugal, France, Argentina, Brazil and Belgium all bunched up on one half of the bracket, the other side appeared to offer a much less complex path to the final, with Spain and England the only former world champs present.
And what looked like the good side initially only got better when Spain was knocked out by hard-running hosts Russia.
So while the big boys have played out a merciless Battle Royal on one side, with the likes of Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar the casualties, Southgate’s men have had to beat Colombia and Sweden to reach the semis.
The word intentionally omitted from that previous sentence is “only”.
Even brushing past the old cliche that you can only beat what’s in front of you, getting through any World Cup knock-out match is an achievement worth applauding.
In a one-off, sudden-death game, nothing can be taken for granted.
Against Colombia in the round of 16, England truly had to earn its passage. The South Americans, talented, street-smart and experienced, are a good enough side themselves to reach the semi-final or final.
Had they not been missing their star man, James Rodriguez, it may have been the Colombians who emerged from a ding-dong battle, but James was out injured and it was England who came through the other side.
They did it the hard way too, after Yerry Mina scored a booming header in injury time to equalise at 1-1 and send the game to extra time.
England dealt with that shock, absorbed the pressure of a revitalised Colombia in extra-time, and managed to win their first penalty shoot-out in World Cup history.
This was the defining moment of their campaign, and no matter what happens from here, this particular group of players, under Southgate’s stewardship, have thrown off the yoke of failure England has carried for decades.
So then the task was to beat a limited Sweden side to reach the rare air of a semi-final, and once again, the task was carried out with aplomb.
The Swedes may have lacked any real bite to their play, but keep in mind this is a side who qualified ahead of the Netherlands, knocked Italy out in the play-offs, and topped a group containing Mexico and Germany in the tournament proper.
They may have been workmanlike, but they were very hard to beat.
Yet, England made it look simple. It stuck to its formula of keeping things tight and dispatching set-piece opportunities to claim a 2-0 win.
And that was good enough to enable England to achieve something it hasn’t done for 28 years — to stay alive until the very last games of the World Cup.
England is in the semi-finals on merit. If it was to go all the way it would have to win two more games that will be exponentially harder than anything it has experienced so far.
The biggest tests, by far, are still to come.