Monday, August 8, 2022

England’s glorious lionesses are a step away from greatness after Sweden batted

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It’s not supposed to be like that. England rolled and refereed their way through the semi-finals of a major tournament as if nothing had happened…

In all four corners of Bramall Lane, supporters chant “It’s Coming Home” but also look at each other and giggle. I don’t want that to happen. Not like that. England shall fight their way through matches with blood and thunder, not waltz and whistle while they work.

It’s 9.30pm in Sheffield and if you’d rather be anywhere than here, then frankly you’re an idiot. There are 20 minutes left; the part when it’s supposed to reach a nervous crescendo, remember.

England were great because they weren’t always great, if that can still make sense. This was neither the walk of Norway and Northern Ireland nor the courageous emergency victory over Spain. Swedes are rightly brilliant and they have worried England. And yet England ended it with a quadruple substitution to save players for the final, passing the ball at walking pace because the opponent was broken.

It was exhilarating and it was joyous. When Beth Mead left the field to be substituted, the sustained cheers raised the hairs on the back of your neck. Forget Mead’s composure in front of goal for a minute; I have no idea why she didn’t just burst into tears at the time. Being an athletic hero isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it for those rare moments when you feel like you’re walking on a cloud that would support your weight.

We have to start with The Goal, and we’re not even talking about Beth Mead parrying a cross almost dead, turning and firing the ball on the spin to make it 1-0. Not when Alessia Russo hits the ball through the legs of a goalkeeper from the outside in the six-yard box. Hedvig Lindahl will return home and want to sit in a dark room for a while. She was musky, chipped and missed, certainly the keeper’s version of hung, drawn and quartered.

There were new heroes in the 30 minutes that now seem like a distant memory, but provided the foundation. Mary Earps has spent a good chunk of this tournament with about the same prospect as the rest of the country, watching England weave a dream for us in the final third. Not on Tuesday. Earps made two excellent saves at 0-0 and another after England took the lead. She would take her father to the sports grounds in Edwalton, Nottingham, near their home, and practice for hours. It was all for that.

More than a word of praise also for Rachel Daly, who so many thought would lose her place to Alex Greenwood after suffering twisted blood and a little bruised pride against Spain. Daly started and led by example. It takes courage to empower yourself to play with the same enthusiasm that caught you in the previous game. Kudos to Wiegman for her continued faith.

It’s easy – maybe even a little too trite – to say that the first half hour reveals the moments when Sarina Wiegman earns her grain, but it’s also true. Not in the present, you know. Wiegman sits and she frowns and she frowns, and occasionally they or a coach yell and wave their hands like they’re playing heavy metal through a semaphore.

But the work is done. England’s response to those difficult moments, those awkward enemies, is neither physical nor tactical. It’s purely mental. Wiegman has told her players that they must remain calm because it is only through composure that you can technically perform at your best. And when England are at their best technically, they really are one of the best teams in their sport. Suddenly Sweden was inundated and England was rioting.

On Tuesday afternoon, one of the national Drivetime radio shows interviewed a family outside of Bramall Lane who were attending the game. When the vox pop ended, the reporter inevitably asked for a score prediction.

“4-0,” the kid said without hesitation. Bring out a lot of laughter, as if to say, “Stupid, naive little boy, you don’t know anything. This is England in a semi-final of a major tournament, how can you believe it will be so comfortable. Let’s hope the boy calls for freelance expert work on Wednesday.

Another couple were asked if they had tickets for the final and revealed they were supposed to go on holiday but would cancel and get as much refund as possible if England were there. “We wouldn’t be able to miss it,” they said.

And they are right. If you’ve followed England through this tournament and watched a team grow from hopefuls to heroes, how could you miss it? These fantastic players are just one step away from greatness and Wembley will be packed to the brim with those intent on witnessing the greatest day of their lives.

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