England are in a World Cup semi-final for the first time in a generation after a goal apiece from Harry Maguire and Dele Alli and three magnificent saves from Jordan Pickford earned them a well-deserved 2-0 victory over Sweden.
Considering the magnitude of the occasion and the effort expended in seeing off Colombia on penalties in the first knock-out stage four days earlier, this unchanged England team showed experience beyond their years, and for long spells the game had the air of an FA Cup tie, pitting Premier League thoroughbreds against lower league rivals whose best chance of a Cup upset would come from set-pieces and long balls punted hopefully in the direction of the opposition penalty area.
It was clear from the outset that England were the technically superior team, however Sweden’s tactics of pressing high up the pitch and getting tight to Stones, Maguire and Walker were putting England off their stride and forcing them into misplaced passes and long balls out of defence.
Despite that, England would have the better of the early chances, Alli almost playing in Harry Kane on one occasion but overhitting his through ball, and Kane dragging a shot narrowly wide on another following a driving run and lay-off by Raheem Sterling.
On the half-hour mark, following a passage of play in which England had their opponents pinned in their own half and were creating numerous half-chances, they won a corner. Ashley Young arrowed the ball into the penalty area and Maguire, determined to make it his, rose magnificently above a bevvy of defenders to power a thumping header into the bottom left-hand corner and hand England yet another goal from a set-piece.
England would have two more wonderful chances to put the game beyond Sweden before half-time, first when Raheem Sterling collected a Kieran Trippier chip into the penalty area but hesitated, allowing Sweden to clear, and again following a super ball over the Sweden defence from Jordan Henderson that put Sterling through one-on-one with Olsen, only for the goalkeeper to make an excellent one-handed save from the England striker who again took too long to pull the trigger when the ball fell back into his path.
Sweden began the second-half full of attacking intent, and within five minutes of the restart might have drawn level were it not for a wonderful save from Pickford who dived low to claw the ball off the goal line following a powerful downward header from Berg that looked destined for the back of the net.
England, however, were soon in control again and, having rained in a series of corners and crosses, found Jesse Lingard on the edge of the Sweden penalty area. The Manchester United forward whipped a first-time cross towards the back post where Dele Alli, peeling away from his markers, rose unchallenged to power a 58th minute header through the despairing arms of Olsen and give England a 2-0 advantage they thoroughly deserved.
England’s two-goal cushion might have been reduced to one and led to a nail-biting last half-hour had not Pickford again proved England’s saviour. This time, an incisive move from Sweden saw the ball worked through midfield to Berg whose excellent lay-off found Claesson. He in turn shot low and hard towards the bottom corner of England’s goal, only for Pickford to produce a stunning save and parry the ball away.
England continued to look for a third and for long periods pegged Sweden back, creating a number of half-chances in the process. However, it was Sweden who would again test Pickford, this time forcing the young England goalkeeper to tip over magnificently from a Berg shot.
That would be the last time Sweden would trouble England, whose intelligent game management would help them see out the remainder of the 90 minutes.
With the referee blowing for full-time, England were through, somewhat surreally, to a first World Cup semi-final in 28 years, and it had been done in a calm, assured and confident manner, and without much of the high-drama usually associated with the Three Lions.
With only two games separating England from the golden trophy, they can dare to dream.