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England take the plaudits but could one day rue the best chance of a generation

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A place in the last four at a World Cup was beyond England’s wildest dreams pre-tournament.

To achieve such deserves the utmost acclaim, but, in the brutal world of knockout football, England’s exit against Croatia may be looked upon in 20 years time as a chance missed.

This was not the tournament for this young, vibrant England side. Very much in the embryonic stage, coach Gareth Southgate was nurturing this inexperienced bunch through this World Cup, garnering tournament knowhow for an assault on future trophies.

The system was a new one, only introduced for pre-World Cup friendlies, with players having to get used to being deployed in unfamiliar positions, and, so far, it has worked.

Much has also been made of the feel-good factor surrounding the camp. There have been no boozed-up players snapped slumped in a dentist's chair, no major injury to act as a distraction, all while the tournament draw itself opened for England like a Moses venture off the end of Brighton pier.

As a result, England got all the way to the last four, a juncture they have not reached in 28 years - a fantastic achievement.

But, in the cutthroat world of tournament competition, will the variables ever fall into place again, as they have in Russia, for the coming Euros or World Cups? One day, the achievements in Russia may come with a caveat.

For all the fascinating tactical analysis viewers can divulge in this day and age, sometimes football is a very simple game.

The width of a crossbar, a untimely slip, a wicked deflection or an otherworldly save - these minute details can be the difference between progression to the next round and heartbreak in knockout football.

FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENG

The most negative of naysayers, when trying to put a dampener on the achievements of Pep Guardiola in his illustrious managerial career, point to his record in the Champions League away from Barcelona, where he is yet to reach a final with Bayern Munich or Manchester City, despite being blessed with two exhilarating sides.

Yet, in the unpredictable nature of quarter or semi-finals, it really can come down to just one goal, or a multitude of missed chances.

With Bayern, Guardiola came up against Diego Simeone’s Atletico Madrid, one of the best defensive units of the past decade, and despite dominating for large swathes of the home leg, his side just could not break down the incredible residence of Simeone’s men.

Then, against Liverpool, City had 30 bad minutes over two legs, and ultimately were sent crashing out, and Guardiola again chastised. In knockout football, you really do have to take your chances when they come around.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

England were not even expected to be presented with a chance in Russia. An easy group ensured they would be on course for Germany in the quarter final, which would have been a step too far.

Then, unthinkably, Germany could not even get past the group stage. Instead, England, after exorcising their penalty demons against Colombia, faced a Sweden side with few threats.

And who were the opponents in the semi final? A rampant Belgium? An effervescent France? No, instead it was Croatia, with a population less than half of London’s, who had just come off the back of two extra-time knockout matches of their own, chasing a first-ever final appearance.

And, with England 1-0 up in the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow, cheered on by 10,000 fervent fans who had made the journey to witness what could have been an historical night for the forefathers of football, England’s path was once again opening up in front of their eyes.

FBL-WC-2018-MATCH62-CRO-ENG

Chances came and went for England to double their lead, but, in the first half, they remained comfortable.

After the break, though, with nerves understandably taking hold, they seized up and Croatia started to come into it. Then, once they had levelled through Ivan Perisic, there was only going to be one winner.

So as England slip out of the competition, expectations exceeded, there will always be those “what ifs?”

England were on top, against a side ranked eight places lower than them in the FIFA World Rankings.

England v Croatia: Semi Final - 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia

In a tournament where every variable had fallen into place, no distraction had reared its ugly head, against inferior opposition from start to finish.

Are England ever going to have a better chance of ending 52 years of hurt?

In coming tournaments, when Harry Kane's metatarsal fractures, Dele Alli breaks a team curfew or Brazil hit top form before a quarter final date with England, fans may look back on their Russian adventure and wonder what might have been.

Topics:
World Cup diary
Football
Gareth Southgate
Sweden Football
Croatia Football
Ivan Perisic
Colombia Football
Russia Football
Pep Guardiola
Germany Football
England Football
World Cup
Premier League
Manchester City
Liverpool

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