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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 October 2018

England inspired but untainted by World Cup past as belief grows they can 'go all the way'

Southgate's side are one win away from reaching a first World Cup final since their sole triumph in 1966

England captain Harry Kane, left, and manager Gareth Southgate aim to reach the World Cup final. Frank Augstein / AP Photo
England captain Harry Kane, left, and manager Gareth Southgate aim to reach the World Cup final. Frank Augstein / AP Photo

SAMARA // What you do not know, cannot hurt you. Of the 11 England starters who beat Sweden to book a place in the last-four of the World Cup on Saturday night, only three were born the last time their country contested a semi-final.

Kyle Walker and Jordan Henderson were just weeks-old babies, while Ashley Young was four when England lost in 1990 to West Germany on penalties. The hurt passed them by. Ignorance is bliss.

Now, 28 years later, England’s young band of brothers have a chance to write their own history. Well, another chapter. They are, after all, already changing the narrative in Russia, laying to rest against Colombia a penalty hoodoo that had involved three defeats from three World Cup shootouts.

Against Croatia on Wednesday in Moscow, England can qualify for a major tournament final for the first time since their sole triumph at the 1966 World Cup on home soil.

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Read more:

Richard Jolly: England look to pragmatic Henderson to defeat Croatia

Zlatko Dalic: Croatia will be ready for semi-final showdown with England

Semi-final stars: Maradona, Pele, Gascoigne, Baggio, Charlton - in pictures

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“It's amazing,” said Harry Kane, the England captain. “To meet any heroes from 1966 is incredible and always give you so much inspiration. It’s been a long time since England did well in a major tournament, let alone win it.

"A lot of us weren't even born in 1990. We have a tough game coming up, but we feel confident and we want to go all the way. We just need to keep it going — one step closer to what is the biggest game in football as a professional.”

With an average age of 26, England will be doing it with the second-youngest squad of the 32 teams that started this most-fascinating of tournaments.

Dele Alli, in heading his team’s second goal against the Swedes, became the second-youngest player to score for England at a World Cup, aged just 22.

For some, second-place is the first-placed loser, but for a team that has not reached a major final for 52 years, everything from now on must be taken as positive.

“I think it's a success as it is now, without a doubt,” said Harry Maguire, who opened the scoring in his country’s 2-0 win. “We're in a semi-final, which we've only managed to do three times, so it's a real, high success.

"A big achievement for the lads, but now we have a semi-final and we definitely believe we can reach the final. It's a big ask, but it's something we believe we can do.”

Such words will be music to the ears of the English media, which is famously almost as quick to proclaim its national team champions in-waiting as it is to proclaim them charlatans.

Having managed to avoid many of the traditional powerhouses of the game, England could reach the final without beating a team ranked inside the top 15 of Fifa’s official world rankings.

Gareth Southgate, consequently, is keen to temper expectations and play down the quality of his team, who were ranked 12th when Fifa last published their list ahead of the tournament.

“We are in World Cup semi-final, but whether we are in the top four in the world is something we still have to prove,” the England manager said. “We are not the finished article. We do not have renowned world-class players yet.”

Dele, who conceded he had played poorly before notching his third international goal, echoed Southgate’s words.

“We still want to achieve a lot more,” the Tottenham Hotspur midfielder said. “We’re hungry in the squad and want to keep achieving and improving together. We’re not the finished article, but we’re in the semi-finals of the World Cup. It’s exciting.”