It was one of those nights that had an air of inevitability about it.
England, faced with a 1-0 goal lead against supposedly inferior Icelandic opposition, conceded two quick goals, each as woeful as the other, and then proceeded to lumber to defeat.
This was Hollywood lumbering. The supposed megastars of the English game. Players currently commanding multi-million pound wages were lumbering around the field like brain-dead zombies in pursuit of an impossible equaliser.
For the magnificent Iceland, it was their easiest game of the tournament so far. Having taken the lead they could afford to play to their strengths – defend in numbers and then break on the counter-attack.
The tactics worked perfectly because England failed to prepare for them.
Iceland had utilised the booming long throws of Cardiff City midfielder Aron Gunnarsson throughout the whole tournament, but England were hopelessly inept in conceding the equaliser.
It was no surprise to see Kari Arnason’s flicked header from the edge of the area land in Ragnar Sigurdsson’s path. The Iceland centre-back, who had a towering game, lashed home the volley in a sea of space to cancel out Wayne Rooney’s fourth-minute penalty.
What followed was equally predictable.
Putting together one of the moves of the match, Iceland swept upfield with ease, shifting the ball to target man Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, whose shot squirmed underneath Joe Hart’s pitiful dive.
Hart’s second grave error of the tournament – and second when diving low to his left – cast England into the land of the living dead.
Suddenly, players who had had magnificent seasons in the Premier League caved under the pressure.
The tension was palpable even before the match began. Joe Hart in particularly was too tense – nervous, even – shaking his head as if to rid himself of the strain.
As Ian Wright remarked after the match, England “were petrified.”
Wayne Rooney was dreadful. Gary Cahill was worse. Harry Kane was shocking. Manager Roy Hodgson resigned after the match.
Kane’s presence over free-kicks and corners was torturous. It was as if he tried to copy Gareth Bale, scored a worldy in training and was suddenly England’s best free-kick taker. He failed horribly.
His demise to the land of the dead, where his touch against Iceland was heavier than that of a zombie, was the scariest to watch.
Free-kick after free-kick. Shot after shot. Each clubbed wildly shy of the target with increasing desperation.
It was a disease that spread through the England side as the game wore on. To a man, their first touch was awful, with players letting the ball roll under their foot and technique malfunctioning.
There was no pressing of the opposition, no desire and no quality.
Too many times England were hesitant going forward. There was a suffocating tendency to pass the ball sideways. There was barely any creativity and only lethargic movement off the ball.
Substitute Marcus Rashford was the brightest spark, at least showing a willingness and ability to beat defenders and inject some life into a motionless attack.
Take nothing away from Iceland though. It is insignificant that they have a population of just over 300,000. What mattered was their commitment to the cause, their execution of a gameplan and tactics, plus their desire to put their bodies on the line.
Their fans were astounding. The cavernous ‘Viking chant’ even intimidated those watching on television. They supported their team in unison with passion, deafening noise and zero violence. They were a lesson to the footballing world.
On the pitch, the players followed suit.
Ragnar Sigurdsson delivered a man-of-the-match display in defence. Birkir Bjarnason menaced England on the counter and Ari Skulason completely shut down the pace of Kyle Walker.
Their display fully merited the win and a quarter-final match against hosts France, and who would bet against them defeating another under-fire team?
But for England this was a truly horrific match.
They haven’t learned from previous mistakes and have a nightmare record in knockout football.
They are paralysed by fear when the going gets tough, crippled by pressure and expectation.
Their gruesome fate was inevitable as soon as the 18th minute. They were dead and buried. The referee should have blown for full-time there and then – a kind of footballing euthanasia.
But unusually for these zombies they will get another chance in the land of the living. They will be praised again and all will be well…until the next major tournament comes along.
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