Captain Kane can't do it all by himself

Support cast of Alli, Sterling & Lingard must step up in attack for team to go all the way

QUARTER-FINALS

Sweden v England
Singtel TV Ch141 & StarHub Ch222, 10pm

As Argentina, Portugal and Egypt have shown, the one-man shows do not progress far, while Brazil, France and Belgium have benefited from having a group of players sharing the responsibility.

So England have been warned. They will not beat Sweden, much less win the World Cup, unless the three musketeers supporting Harry Kane can wake up from their collective slumber in time for today's quarter-final.

With six goals, the inspirational captain has proved that he can single-handedly win matches, scoring in every game in Russia.

But he faces his toughest test yet at the Cosmos Arena. Centre-backs Andreas Granqvist and Victor Lindelof have been near imperious in helping the Swedes keep three clean sheets in four games.

Of the trio behind Kane, the biggest disappointment has been Dele Alli. The 22-year-old has been a pale shadow of his Tottenham self who plundered 14 goals and 16 assists last season.

Insisting he is fit from a thigh strain, Alli was full of running and did his part by closing down the Colombia defenders in the last 16.

But he has been poor in attack. He has just three shots in two games, did not make a single dribble into the box and has been robbed of the ball 23 times. His team-mates have lost fewer despite playing a game more.

Raheem Sterling looked livelier in attack but, like Alli, the man with 23 goals and 13 assists for Manchester City last term could not reproduce his form in an England shirt.

The 23-year-old's goal-less streak has lasted 23 games and more than 1,000 days - which reflects poorly on a player of his calibre and suggests a mental block.

Jesse Lingard fared better with a beautiful curler against Panama, a rarity in England's nine-goal haul, where seven came from set pieces and eight from inside the box.

The Manchester United midfielder, 25, has impressed with his intelligence and willingness to shoot. His eight attempts equal Alli and Sterling's combined tally and is just one short of Kane's. Like Sterling, he has also made three dribbles into the box.

Still, Lingard has been wasteful, failing to score from a counter-attack to put the Colombia game to bed before the South Americans equalised to take it to extra time.

For the tournament's least experienced side (in terms of caps) to get this far, it must be so tempting for Gareth Southgate and the Three Lions to pat themselves on the back for the way they pulled through that roller-coaster win over Colombia on penalties, and imagine themselves holding the trophy aloft.

The typical circus that surrounds England - doomsday predictions followed by delusions of grandeur - has also started.

Fans are allowing themselves to believe they can add to the sole triumph in 1966 when they sing It's Coming Home, while one BBC headline noted: "England's best chance to reach semi-finals since 1990", as if Sweden are pushovers.

Of course the Blagult (blue and yellow) are not. In fact, they are the perfect example of a true team effort after bidding goodbye to one-man circus Zlatan Ibrahimovic.

As former England boss Sven-Goran Eriksson, a Swede, said: "It will be the most difficult game for England so far, they can bet on that. It would be easier for England to beat Brazil than to beat Sweden.

"Sweden today are a very hard team to break down. Their strikers are defenders when it is time to defend, and they can defend in their own box as well. You won't find a better team - Sweden are world champions of team spirit."

The teams have met at the World Cup twice and, on both occasions, England led and Sweden fought back. The English have won seven times, lost seven and drawn nine of their 23 meetings - expect another close affair in Samara.

Janne Andersson's warriors have also scored in every game - against South Korea, Germany, Mexico and Switzerland - while England have yet to keep a clean sheet.

Centre-back Harry Maguire, one of seven England players who came to Russia with fewer than 10 caps, has come into his own with his composure and ability to play the ball out of tight situations alongside the equally classy John Stones. But Kyle Walker, a right-back converted into a central defender, always looked on the verge of a calamitous lapse.

Does Southgate, who has options all around, stick with his first XI, or does he make some hard decisions such as dropping Alli for Marcus Rashford, or sacrificing one of his three centre-backs to push one more player forward to try and score from open play?

The fact is, this young England team still need polishing and must improve quickly, even against seemingly favourable opponents, to live to fight another day.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 07, 2018, with the headline 'Captain Kane can't do it all by himself'. Print Edition | Subscribe