England's Dele Alli finally finds the freedom to make his mark on world stage

Dominic Fifield at the Samara Arena

The hour-mark was approaching when Dele Alli’s moment arrived. England had pinned Sweden deep inside their own territory, patiently sizing up when to deliver the critical pass as teammates manoeuvred themselves into position and flustered opponents sensed impending disaster. It was Jesse Lingard who eventually arced over the cross and there, the wrong side of Emil Krafth at the far post, was Alli to connect sweetly with his header.

The midfielder flashed a glance towards the assistant referee for reassurance that there would be no flap of a flag, before out came all those dance routines and intricate handshakes that had been in storage at this level since October 2016. Not since Gareth Southgate’s first game in charge, back in the days when the waistcoat was worn by an interim coach, and a distinctly forgettable qualifying victory against Malta, had Alli registered for his country. Now, after 13 scoreless outings and the occasional pang of doubt, not least in the buildup to this quarter-final, there was reward to cherish.

He would fling his shirt into the bouncing England support behind one goal after the final whistle before sauntering from the turf, a job professionally done. “Personally, I didn’t think it was one of my better games,” he said. “It was important we had belief in our gameplan, dominating possession but being patient as well, making sure we moved the ball quickly. For the team and the country to be going to the semi-finals … it’s an amazing feeling.”

It felt completely fitting that this occasion should be decorated by the midfielder’s rare goal. This had been all about a collective raising their game, a display showcasing their eagerness to graft that Harry Kane had spoken so passionately about on the eve of the match. It was a victory that had not relied upon the captain’s cold class in front of goal and came more courtesy of Jordan Henderson’s authority in central midfield and the boundless energy of the wing-backs; of Harry Maguire’s utter dominance in the air and Jordan Pickford’s excellence.

READ MORE: Maguire: It's coming home for England...hopefully

The success ended up appearing comfortable but it was three saves the goalkeeper summoned after the interval that deflated what little ambition remained in Swedish ranks. A first clean sheet of the tournament was his reward.

Key to it all had been the energy, invariably offered by that trio of forward-thinkers hovering with menace at the lone forward’s back. That was what truly set England apart from the workaholic plod of Janne Andersson’s selection. Alli, Lingard and Raheem Sterling had stretched Sweden whenever there was a zip to England’s delivery from midfield. They were at their fluent best when the passes were slid first-time before opponents had time to adjust, the runners forever readying themselves to scuttle into space behind a wall of yellow shirts.

Lingard’s form under Southgate has been revelatory, more than justifying the trust placed in him. Sterling still looks uncertain in front of goal but he spread panic in Samara, where Sweden were permanently alarmed he might infiltrate their backline and dart in behind. He should have doubled the English advantage when Henderson clipped him free in the last minute of the first period. How Alli, hovering ignored in space to Sterling’s left, his arm briefly raised as he hollered for a pass, would have craved a ball slipped square.

The Spurs midfielder had needed a spark, something to kickstart his campaign. There had previously been no rhythm to his tournament through no fault of his own, other than perhaps that understandable desire to remain on the pitch a little too long in Volgograd, which served to exacerbate the thigh strain he had suffered. The injury cost him further involvement in the group stage, while the particular demands of the knockout tie against Colombia, where aggressive opponents pinned him back, meant he rarely occupied the areas where he tends to thrive for his club.

Southgate had needed to coax more from the 22-year-old here and, where Alli had occasionally been sloppy up to the interval, his passing hit and miss, he thrived once pushed slightly further upfield after the break. or the first time since the opening quarter against Tunisia, England benefited from Alli at his most effective. Suddenly there was space in which to revel, sightings of goal and the opportunity for inter-play with teammates.

If the management had briefly contemplated picking Eric Dier, pushing Henderson into the No 8 role, then this was vindication for retaining the faith.

“We thought balls to the far post and late runs from midfield could cause them a problem,” Southgate said. “Dele’s done a super job defensively for the team over here but he’s at his best when he’s making those runs in the inside channel, as he does for his club. Here, instead of Christian Eriksen, it was Jesse Lingard providing for him.”

He will be bolstered by this display. This, at last, feels like his stage.