MOSCOW (AFP) – England celebrated reaching the World Cup semi-finals for the first time in a generation as Russia came to terms Sunday with a heartbreaking exit from their own party.
Gareth Southgate’s young team swept Sweden aside 2-0, sparking scenes of unconfined joy in London and elsewhere as World Cup fever reached new heights with the country sweltering in a summer heatwave.
“Cancel your plans for Wednesday night – England have reached their first World Cup semi-final in nearly 30 years,” said the Sun on Sunday.
“The dream goes on! England in ecstasy,” trumpeted the Mail On Sunday.
Leicester defender Harry Maguire headed England ahead in the first half and Tottenham’s Dele Alli added a second just before the hour as Southgate’s team enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in Samara.
Man-of-the-match Jordan Pickford made three outstanding saves to keep Sweden at bay, further burnishing a reputation that has grown throughout the tournament.
“It’s a great achievement for the team, we owed it to the fans back home who believed in us,” said Alli.
“It’s always nice to score, especially on occasions like this. It’s an amazing feeling to be going to a semi-final at a World Cup.”
Captain Harry Kane, who leads the goalscoring charts in Russia with six strikes, failed to find the net for the first time but said confidence was high after England posted their best run at a major tournament since Euro ‘96.
“We’re buzzing. We know there is still a big game ahead, but we’re feeling really good,” he said.
Prince William, the president of the Football Association, praised Southgate’s men.
“You wanted to make history @England and you are doing just that,” he tweeted. “This has been an incredible #WorldCup run and we’ve enjoyed every minute. You deserve this moment – Football’s Coming Home!”
Even if Southgate’s team reach the final, William will not attend the match because of Britain’s diplomatic boycott of the World Cup in Russia over a nerve agent attack in England this year.
In the later match in Sochi, Russia’s fairytale run came to a halt as they were beaten on penalties by Croatia after 120 gruelling minutes of football.
Russia – the lowest-ranked nation at their own tournament – refused to die despite enjoying just 36 percent of possession against a superior Croatian team led by Luka Modric.
Croatia thought they had won the match when Domagoj Vida rose to nod in a corner in the first period of extra time but Mario Fernandes headed home from a free-kick to pull Russia level at 2-2.
The host nation, who beat Spain on penalties in the last 16, failed to convert two of their spot-kicks, leaving Barcelona’s Ivan Rakitic with match point and he made no mistake, sealing a 4-3 win.
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov lamented that fortune had not smiled on his side.
“Luck was against us,” Cherchesov said. “My guys feel like conscript soldiers whose term of service was over just when they were preparing to go into battle.
“They still want to fight that war.”
Russia Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev called the team’s performance “magnificent”, saying the tournament would change the face of football in the host nation.
Croatia, who last reached the semis in 1998, now face the challenge of trying to recover in time to play England in Moscow on Wednesday after their second consecutive penalty shootout drained their players of energy.
But Modric said they would be ready to face Southgate’s men. “We have enough time to rest and prepare well,” said the Real Madrid midfielder.
“We expect a very difficult, tight and demanding match. Every match at this World Cup is like that… We have to enjoy the moment, then tomorrow we prepare for England.”
In the other semi-final, in Saint Petersburg tomorrow, Belgium, who conquered Neymar’s Brazil in the quarter-finals, take on France, who saw off Uruguay.