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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 October 2018

England, patient and probing, earn deserved win over Sweden to reach World Cup semi-final

Goals by Maguire and Alli sends Southgate's side to the last-four in Russia

England dismantled Sweden’s tactical defensive game-plan like it was an Ikea wardrobe assembled with the drawers upside down: boredom and frustration leading to patient probing before eventually getting the required pieces in the right positions to successfully complete the job.

The result was a solid if economical performance in the World Cup. Now into the semi-finals, a couple more and they can take it home.

Sweden’s Janne Andersson has enjoyed great success as manager of his national team, beating the Netherlands and Italy in qualifying and finishing top of a group that included world champions Germany. But England proved too calculated and clinical, efficiently scoring with their only two shots on target.

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“It was a really difficult test,” said Gareth Southgate, the England manager. “Sweden make it so difficult, break the game up and don’t let it flow as much.

"We had to adapt with and without the ball and we were brave enough to play at times, open them and probably should have had a couple more. But our goalkeeper also made a couple of big saves at crucial moments.”

In front of 39,991 fans at the Samara Arena, it took only 30 minutes for Andersson’s plan to come unstuck. Drab and dispiriting, the opening half-hour sparked to life only when Harry Maguire outmuscled Emil Forsberg to power a bullet header past Robin Olsen for England’s 10th goal of the tournament. Arriving from an Ashley Young corner, it was their eighth from a set-piece.

“Maguire has been a giant in both boxes throughout the tournament,” said Southgate. "When I was watching him last season, I was so keen for him to stay fit because this is a stage I was certain he could play on.

"I’m not sure he always believed that, but his use of the ball is as good as any centre-back in the tournament. We have scored set-piece goals because of him up to this point and now he’s got the goal he deserved.”

Raheem Sterling failed to convert two great chances late in the first half and his profligacy threatened to come back to haunt him when Marcus Berg, the Al Ain striker, forced a low save from Jordan Pickford with a header immediately after the restart.

But any hope of an equaliser evaporated in the 59th minute when Dele Alli nodded past Olsen having being found completely unmarked at the back post by Jesse Lingard’s looping cross.

“We know that Sweden are very strong defending crosses at the near post and felt balls to the far post and late runs from midfield could cause them problems,” Southgate said. “It was a great cross by Jesse and Dele is at his best when he makes those forward runs.”

Sweden rallied slightly, but Pickford again proved impenetrable, saving Viktor Claesson’s first-time low shot and later a Berg half-volley aimed for the roof of the net.

The fact England attacked with more speed and verve but Pickford was the busier of the two goalkeepers will be a concern for Southgate ahead of their semi-final on Wednesday in Moscow.

“This is what football is all about: being on the big stage,” said Pickford, who was named man of the match. “I just try to play my best. The pitch is always the same: same lines, same goal height, same game of football. I always enjoy it. I never put myself under pressure. Nothing phases me.”