News of England’s injury problems may have been greatly exaggerated.
If the build-up to the Lionesses’ World Cup quarter-final against Norway was dominated by discussion over the potential absentees, then the event itself could hardly have been more different.
All those said to be struggling played – and played their part in what felt like a watershed moment for women’s football.
England showed their frailties and fallibilities but also their brilliant interplay and red-hot finishing ability. And at the end of a pulsating, engrossing night in Le Havre it was England who progressed to the semi-finals in Lyon on Tuesday.
All the while the nation watched on gripped. England’s 20,000 fans inside the Stade Oceane made themselves heard. Children recreated Ellen White’s now-familiar glasses celebration. Thousands of Glastonbury attendees jumped up in front of big screens – put on at the request of midfielder Georgia Stanway.
Perhaps the most exciting thing is that, despite recording a second successive 3-0 win and fourth successive clean sheet, England are nowhere near their peak.
There was plenty of sloppy passing, defensive mishaps and hairy moments. If they could marry attacking flare with defensive stability and midfield consistency then there is no reason to think they couldn’t be the ones lifting the trophy next Sunday.
Strong right side
While there are obvious weaknesses, it was England’s obvious strengths which defined their night in Normandy.
Much was made of Norway’s dangerous overlapping fullbacks, but it was the Lionesses’ marauding right-back who made the difference. Lucy Bronze was exceptional, adding a trademark power-strike – just like her winner in the 2015 World Cup meeting between these sides – to her decisive run and pass for Jill Scott’s opener.
Bronze’s combination with right-winger Nikita Parris, supplemented by the tireless Scott, was absolutely devastating all night, working like a can-opener on Norway’s defence.
It was Bronze who got to the byline within three minutes to square for Scott, who benefitted from White’s accidental dummy to scuff in off the post and give England the perfect start.
The right-sided bias continued, with Parris skying on her left foot after cutting inside and White striking the post white a volley from Parris’ clever pass, but Norway were not to be let off the hook.
Steph Houghton sent Bronze on her way and the right-back played Parris inside the beleaguered Norwegian full-back to put a fifth goal of the tournament on a plate for White and prompt that joyous, distinctive celebration.
The crowning moment came when Bronze blasted into the roof of the net from the edge of the box having strangely been ignored by the Norway defence from a free-kick she’d won via a determined run.
England’s defence may have shaken off injuries and illnesses to keep another clean sheet, but they weren’t without their wobbles.
Holding midfielder Keira Walsh was guilty of frequently giving the ball away, while both Houghton and her defensive partner Millie Bright both found themselves out of position on occasion.
However, on every occasion one of their team-mates made up for the error. Bright shut down the much-hyped but nullified Caroline Graham Hansen on two first-half occasions. Demi Stokes, preferred to Alex Greenwood due to her defensive strengths, put in a solid performance. Houghton nipped in front of Graham Hansen at the last moment and even cleared off the line following a shaky Bright pass-back.
The Lionesses’ domination was such that they could even afford to spurn a chance from the penalty spot, Ingrid Hjelmseth producing a full-length dive to keep Parris’ spot-kick out after a push on Houghton.
Hosts France or holders the United States await in Lyon. But with this talent and this spirit you wouldn’t bet against the Lionesses reaching their first World Cup final.