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England manager Gareth Southgate and his players harbored a familiar sense of missed opportunity as that elusive Major tournament triumph eluded them once again.
Watching the post-match scene at Al Bayt Stadium brought flashbacks – to the World Cup semi-final loss to Croatia in Moscow in 2018, to the European Championship final loss to Italy at Wembley 16 months ago.
Amid the pain of their latest defeat, Southgate offered consolation to the devastated England players who have inspired hope, only to see potential glory wrested from their grasp.
A 2-1 World Cup quarter-final loss to France here in Qatar was a brutal result. England’s display deserved to at least drag the game into extra time.
Perhaps that’s why it felt different, even more painful, for England this time around. A real opportunity to win this World Cup has opened up to the Southgate squad, an emerging mix of youth and experience.
The prize for the winners here was a semi-final against Morocco. And despite all the surprise World Cup forfeits, their brilliant defensive style and powerful counter-attacking style, England would have come into this game as heavy favorites to progress to next weekend’s final. at Lusail.
So Southgate clasped Harry Kane’s face in his hands and offered words of consolation; the captain’s unusually savage late penalty had been England’s best chance to force extra time.
Kane’s tearful expression revealed just how cruel a game this can be; it was the face of a man taking responsibility after giving so much to England. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford worked his way up the length of the pitch to provide more comfort for the sorry captain.
The old question will be asked as to why England can’t fight their way past elite opposition at major tournaments. But on this occasion, at least, we can’t complain about the approach.
Southgate spoke of “beautiful margins” – and they proved decisive. One team took a chance and the other couldn’t. England had nothing to reproach for their efforts.
In the past, England have been rightly criticized for their sluggish World Cup and Euro exits, and Southgate have not been immune to this – but that wasn’t the case here.
Southgate have refused to change their line-up or formation, or opt for conservatism in an attempt to fight Kylian Mbappe. The French superstar has always carried a hint of threat, but England have managed to keep it relatively subdued.
England had the majority of chances but fell victim to France’s more clinical finishing, accompanied by some justified frustration at Brazilian referee Wilton Sampaio.
The official appeared to miss two fouls on Bukayo Saka by Dayot Upamecano in the run-up to Aurelien Tchouameni’s 17th-minute strike, the start of an erratic display, but England were rightly level soon after the break when Kane rammed a past kick. Tottenham team match Hugo Lloris after a foul on Saka.
England had the force with them. They were the better team as Lloris brilliantly saved from Jude Bellingham before Harry Maguire’s header peeked past the post. So close.
Although they could not beat Lloris, danger awaited them. And it paid off when 36-year-old Olivier Giroud, who had just been superbly denied by Pickford, edged past Harry Maguire to head Antoine Griezmann’s cross with just 12 minutes left.
And then came Kane’s missed penalty.
England have already suffered penalties at World Cups and Euros. Here it is again, but in a different form – inside the regulation 90 minutes instead of a shootout.
Was it the fact that it was a second penalty against a goalkeeper who knows him so well? Was it just the pressure of the situation, even for such a consummate penalty expert? Whatever the reason, Kane’s penalty was awful, engulfing the disbelieving England fans behind the goal.
It was all over. England returned early again.
So, how will this campaign be thought out?
The irony is that while a quarter-final exit represents a regression from the last four places secured in 2018, this team holds much more promise for the future than Russia’s.
Saka and Declan Rice were truly exceptional and although Bellingham and Phil Foden were not as influential as in previous games, particularly against Senegal, this quartet will be integral to England’s long-term future.
Arguments will be made that England won against those they should have beaten and lost against the first elite team they met, but it was a different performance to those who had fallen into this category before . The Southgate team weren’t hiding behind the door here. They were the main attacking force. Their fault was not taking risks.
England were impressive against Iran, Wales and Senegal but lackluster against the United States. Their 13 goals came from eight different players. It was their highest number at a World Cup.
Unfortunately, other statistics do not make reading so comfortable.
England have been eliminated from the quarter-finals of the World Cup seven times, more than any other country. Kane’s penalty record for his country isn’t perfect – 17 out of 21 conversions. What he and England would have given for that to read 18.
There are elements of a bright future for England – but will their manager be part of it?
The Football Association would like Southgate to serve every day of the contract that takes him to December 2024, but ultimately the decision is up to him. Will he feel that a duration of three tournaments is enough? Will he want another crack at the club’s management?
He stood by his advice, telling BBC Sport: “These tournaments are asking a lot of you and I need some time to reflect. We’ve done it after every tournament and I think it’s the right thing to do. .”
Once again, England and Southgate will ponder what could have been, as a very good chance of winning the World Cup eluded them terribly.
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