Pickford The Hero Again As England Claim Third On Pens
Jordan Pickford scored and saved in the penalty shootout to ensure England got over the line against Switzerland and achieved their highest finish at a major tournament since Euro ‘96. VAR again took centre-stage to deny England a late winning goal in a match they thoroughly dominated.
Spirits were difficult to raise after Thursday night, admitted Gareth Southgate ahead of the third-place play-off. He felt he needed to freshen up his team for their tie with Switzerland, and so made seven changes. Only Fabian Delph, Harry Maguire, Jordan Pickford and Raheem Sterling made returns to the starting line-up.
Fabian Schär, Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri were the familiar faces as the Premier League’s three representatives in Vladimir Petković’s starting eleven.
Even in the opening exchanges of the match, it was easy to see that Joe Gomez and Harry Maguire had more options to hit in midfield than Maguire and John Stones had against the Netherlands on Thursday.
England were already looking a more fluid outfit, and nearly scored inside two minutes when Harry Kane chipped the ball over goalkeeper Yann Sommer from an acute angle and off the crossbar. Little did they know it, this was going to be the first of a catalogue of near misses for England, as they jostled and panted away in the Portuguese sun.
It was Gareth Southgate’s side making all the early pressings, but there were still hints that this England backline can be got at. Harry Maguire lost Remo Freuler momentarily from a long ball, allowing the midfielder to volley firmly into Pickford’s grasp from range. England needed to be aware of the threat posed by the Swiss on the counter.
They locked the door at the back, allowing a little more intent going forward. Harry Kane played in Raheem Sterling after some fancy footwork, but the Manchester City man slid the ball into the path of Sommer, rather than either side of him. The Three Lions were upping the tempo considerably. This was further exemplified as Fabian Delph and Danny Rose were penalised for ball-winning but nonetheless rugged sliding challenges.
It became a more open affair as the half-time whistle neared, with Xhaka catching one of his trademark long shots very wrong indeed before Trent Alexander-Arnold’s mouth-watering cross was inches too powerful for an onrushing Raheem Sterling to convert.
Perhaps the best chance of the half fell to England in the final few minutes. Alexander-Arnold crossed delightfully onto the head of Dele Alli – who is capable in the air – but the Tottenham man nodded the ball narrowly over the bar from a tempting position. They were getting closer, but still to no avail. The pit-stop duly arrived with the deadlock yet to be broken.
In the first opening of the second period, another beautiful cross – this time from Danny Rose – really tested the Swiss backline. Accomplished centre-half Schär looked nothing like, as he clipped the cross against his own post, in the knowledge that Harry Kane was waiting behind him to prod the ball home if he hadn’t intervened.
It was another almighty slice – and it was a slice – of luck for Switzerland. But as the ball came back off the woodwork, Petković’s side mounted a counter-attack. From one end of the pitch to the other, the ball was cut back to Xhaka, who powered the ball on goal. Pickford dived to parry away the danger and possibly the game’s only example of end-to-end drama finished with the scores just as they had been before.
As Sterling crossed for Dele Alli late on, the Spurs man nodded the ball against the post. Substitute striker Callum Wilson came racing on the scene and clipped the loose ball over the goalkeeper and into the net. England wheeled away in celebration of what they felt was another late winner in the Nations League. But just like on Thursday, the fans’ passionate jubilation was cut short as a single tug of the arm by Wilson in the build up deemed the goal illegal after another lengthy VAR review. 0-0, still.
Raheem Sterling squandered two more chances in the air, both delivered by Alexander-Arnold, who was a willing attacking outlet all afternoon. The match was headed to extra-time – there can’t have been many that wanted that.
It came and went in much less nail-biting fashion to the 30 minutes of hell that consigned England to this very fixture. Sterling stung the woodwork from a direct free-kick in the 117th minute, but still the goal eluded England. Southgate’s men had once again been the better side and could be forgiven for feeling a little sorry for themselves at not having won the game outright. It had come all the way to penalties to determine which team finished third.
In the end, it was a penalty shootout of unerring quality. Twelve penalties were taken and eleven were scored. Harry Maguire battered in England’s first, Ross Barkley opted for the ‘Panenka’ for the second. Teenager Jadon Sancho calmly slotted home the third and then, making up for his missed chances in real time, Sterling coolly picked the other side for England’s fourth. The problem was that Switzerland kept replying just as competently.
Up stepped goalkeeper Jordan Pickford to take England’s fifth. Criticised sometimes for bringing too much emotion into his game, you could be forgiven for doubting the Sunderland academy graduate as he posed like Cristiano Ronaldo and took in a huge, deep breath. Then he stepped up to swing the most comprehensive penalty of all past Yann Sommer and in for 5-4. Switzerland scored for 5-5.
Up stepped England’s penalty hero of eleven months ago Eric Dier, who converted in textbook fashion. Switzerland called on substitute and striker Josip Drmić, but the Borussia Mönchengladbach man was denied by a majestic diving save by Jordan Pickford. The Everton keeper swivelled 180 degrees, still knelt, and just took in the rapturous applause from the vast numbers of travelling England fans bounding behind the goal.
It wasn’t the game that England wanted to be involved in and a scoreline of 0-0 probably only highlighted that further. But the way in which it finished can only go down as yet more valuable tournament experience for Southgate and his team of staff and players. The Nations League Finals and indeed 2018/19 season ended for England with victory over Switzerland in the bronze medal match, on penalties by six goals to five.