The Lionesses advanced to a first major tournament final since 2009 with a brilliant 4-0 against Europe’s top-ranked team Sweden.
England had not reached a major final since losing 6-2 to Germany in Helsinki at Euro 2009 and that side’s midfield trio of Fran Kirby, Georgia Stanway and Keira Walsh put on half an hour before figuring out how to ignore some sharp, physical marking from Sweden that kept the crowd of 28,624 on their toes. But Beth Mead’s sixth goal of the tournament took the pressure off the chance before a header from Lucy Bronze, an outrageous backheel from Alessia Russo and a chip from Kirby booked the team a place in the final. Sunday at Wembley in style.
Swedish fans were eagerly waiting for their players to click on this European championship. With the exception of a 5-0 thrashing of Portugal, the team that was called up instead of Russia, the Scandinavian side had appeared to be a shadow of the side that humiliated England in the game for bronze at the World Cup in 2019 and was a penalty away from Olympic gold in Tokyo last summer.
But anyone who would exclude Sweden would have been naïve to do so. Because even if they haven’t given their best, Sweden’s rare struggles in recent years have come against teams that have sat down. A 92nd-minute winner against Belgium spared them an embarrassing quarter-final exit against relative European minnows – but in England they had a semi-final opponent much better suited to their way of playing.
“We are going to leave everything on the field, every drop of sweat,” warned the Kosovare Asllani back, who had recovered from the Covid. “England have played fantastic football in this tournament so far, but at the same time we think this is a game that will suit us. We are very well prepared.
Asllani was brimming with indignant confidence in the face of questions that she might not be fit and ready for the fight at Bramall Lane, a home ground for England but also familiar to Sweden, the team there having played two group matches. This outrage spilled onto the pitch, with the influential midfielder engaging in a fiery physical battle with the goalscorer of England’s extra-time winner against Spain, Stanway.
It was a nervy start for England, against a side so convinced of success they had a tactical breakdown of how to beat them sewn into their shirt labels and a banner that read ‘See you at Wembley’ which spanned the stands in the quarter-final and semi-final.
After just 20 seconds of play, the Lionesses were in trouble. Stanway was stripped in midfield by Fridalina Rolfö. She combined with Sofia Jakobsson who evaded Millie Bright and kicked through goal but Mary Earps reacted quickly and her left foot kicked the ball away.
It was a frenetic and physical start from Sweden and England struggled to find a rhythm. The hosts couldn’t handle the combination of Barcelona’s Rolfö and Arsenal’s Stina Blackstenius on the right, with Bronze, so used to bragging, being beaten time and time again by the pair. Bronze had warned of the threat from Rolfö, who plays at left-back for Barca but has been used further at the Euros, saying they are ‘not always the best wingers to play against when they really know defend properly”.
England were not without chances, a fine cross ball at the far post was met by Mead in the fifth minute only for the striker to graze over the header, but the threat from Sweden was still present. If there’s one thing Sweden allows their opponents, it’s space and the more England have, the better the players in white look set up. In the 36th minute they took the lead decidedly against the run of play. A cross from Lauren Hemp eluded Ellen White in the middle but Bronze kept the move alive and sent it back to Mead unmarked who spun and hammered the bouncing ball past Hedvig Lindahl despite the keeper getting his hands on the ball.
The impact was instantaneous. It was as if a cloak of fear had been lifted over the players by the force of the ball hitting the back of the net and the celebrations from the roof.
England had the wind in its sails. Within three minutes of the restart they had doubled their lead, this time with the flow of play. Mead swung a corner towards the far post from the left and an unmarked bronze, atoning for his earlier tremor, powered a header towards down and it flew between White’s legs before sweeping past Lindahl.
The England players had said they had always believed they would come back against Spain, feeling calm amid the angst of the crowds and fans glued to TVs across the country. Against Sweden, they had found a way to qualify much sooner and the group stage swagger was starting to run through their veins.
Super-sub Russo was welcomed into the fray by the cheering crowd and within 11 minutes had scored her fourth goal in five substitute appearances. It was quite daring. Kirby squared the Manchester United striker and his effort was saved by Lindahl, but Russo hung on to the rebound, was forced wide and sent a nice backheel through the legs of the foiled Lindahl and to inside.
With 13 minutes left on the clock, Kirby turned it into a rout, attempting to send a chip over Lindahl, who the keeper had two hands behind – but that only slowed the ball on its way to the net.
England – who have scored 104 goals in 19 games under Sarina Wiegman – will face the winner of the second semi-final between Germany and France, which takes place on Wednesday evening.
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