England have harnessed a freedom and fearlessness that too often deserted their predecessors as they have forged their way to a World Cup semi-final. Against Croatia in Moscow tomorrow, Gareth Southgate’s youthful side have every reason to feel emboldened.
In reaching this stage of the competition for the first time in 28 years, Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, John Stones and Kieran Trippier have already exceeded expectations. They are already heroes. From here, anything else would be considered a bonus.
There is expectation that they will beat a team ranked below them who needed extra-time and penalties to overcome consecutive knockout ties with Denmark and Russia, but whatever happens Southgate’s men will return to celebrations, as the class of 1990 did.
There will be no inquest and recrimination in defeat; only hope for next time. They can go all in against Croatia knowing they are playing with house money.
Southgate has long ensured he will remain in charge for at least the next two years by achieving an elusive act of managerial alchemy: conceiving and implementing a tactical system that plays to England’s strengths.
Those strengths include the running, movement, pressing and vigour of Kane, Henderson, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling and Jesse Lingard, and it looks like an approach with longevity.
It is a tactic designed for youth, and England have young talent in abundance, having won the World Cups at under-17 and under-20 level last year, rolling off the St George’s Park production line.
Southgate, meanwhile, who worked with Kane and Lingard, among others, as England Under-21 coach before taking charge of the senior squad, is a proven mentor whose management style seems to resonate with his millennial players.
In short, the future looks bright. Greg Dyke’s insistence, upon becoming Football Association chairman five years ago, that England should target winning the 2022 World Cup was derided but is not so laughable now.
That tournament, which is to be played in Qatar in November and December, is such an unknown quantity that all bets as to who might triumph are off.
In any case, success for the Three Lions could come sooner. The 2020 European Championship, being staged in 12 cities spanning the entire continent in an unprecedented move, presents an excellent chance for England.
Almost all of Southgate’s current team will be closer to their peak years and, with Wembley hosting the semi-finals and final, could play five of a possible seven fixtures in front of a home crowd.
England may not have to wait that long for silverware, of course, if they can overcome Croatia at the Luzhniki Stadium and return to the same venue on Sunday afternoon to win a first final since 1966.
Croatia will not be underestimated; they were one of only three teams to progress from the group stage with maximum points, along with Belgium and Uruguay, and did so from a tougher group.
A businesslike opening performance saw off Nigeria 2-0 before they made the world sit up and take notice with a 3-0 drubbing of Lionel Messi’s Argentina. A 2-1 defeat of Iceland completed the flawless set.
Zlatko Dalic’s team have been less convincing in the knockout rounds, however, and they made hard work of qualifying for this World Cup at all. They needed a final-round win over Ukraine to make it into a play-off, where they overcame Greece.
Indeed Dalic, who has spent most of his itinerant coaching career in the Middle East, only took the reins 48 hours before that Ukraine match, making the England showdown just his 13th game in charge.
That Croatia, a nation of 4m, are in the semi-finals is remarkable in itself and testament to a proud tradition of punching above their weight in player development.
Yet the burden of expectation on the current crop, a so-called golden generation that includes world-class midfielders Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, weighs heavily.
Modric and Rakitic, as well as target man Mario Mandzukic, are the wrong side of 30 and the fact that this is likely to be their last shot at international honours carries significant pressure.
For this young England team, just starting out on the world stage, there is little of that pressure and little to fear.