For all the nerves of a nation that flipped from optimism to expectation overnight, it was comfortable. Two textbook English headers secured the Three Lions a place in the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in 28 years.
Both sides had started out the match with misplaced passes and clumsy touches befitting two overachievers finally told of the stakes at play, but by the end of the 90 minutes in Samara, England threatened to turn the historically difficult match-up into a humiliation. On the biggest stage, the young Lions did not crack along the fault lines of their previously fragile national psyche. Perhaps they were barely aware of it.
A bullet header from Harry Maguire off a corner – the eighth set piece goal the team scored, far more than anyone else in Russia – prized open a Sweden team that had hoped to sit back for the entire game. The second-half effort by Dele Alli, who became England’s second-youngest World Cup scorer, from a looping one-time cross by Jesse Lingard, sealed the result.
Calm heroics from goalkeeper Jordan Pickford ensured that Sweden would not convert from their handful of bright passages of attacking play, and spared him a repeat of the nail-biting finish and penalty pressure of England’s last win against Colombia. Even a pathologically wasteful performance from Raheem Sterling, the creator and destroyer of the team’s most promising moves, but significantly not involved in either goal, could not take off the sheen.
Deprived of their talisman Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first tournament since 2002, Sweden showed the possibilities and the limits of collectivism with a performance in which they lacked the quality to persistently trouble the English, or even set up a positional attack. They will still cherish their own best placing in the World Cup since 1994.
England will no longer be preoccupied with the could-have-beens of missing out on a draw that has – not entirely by accident – opened up in front of them. Instead, they need to maintain their callow fearlessness when they travel to Moscow to face the winner of Russia and Croatia’s match on Wednesday. For all the street parties, St. George’s flags, pints of ale hurled into the warm summer air, and other attributes of national hysteria, Gareth Southgate will find solace in knowing that their opponents will be just as likely to be overwhelmed by the occasion.