England reached the Women’s World Cup final for the first time as they spoiled co-hosts Australia’s party on a historic evening in Sydney.
Silencing a sell-out crowd at Stadium Australia with their 3-1 victory, the Lionesses became the first England football team since 1966 to reach a senior final on the world stage.
It caps a sensational two years under manager Sarina Wiegman as England, crowned European champions for the first time last year on home soil, showed their superiority and know-how to see off an Australia side spurred on by a nation who have been inspired by the Matildas’ success.
Ella Toone gave England the lead in the first half with a superb first-time strike which sailed into the top corner.
The Lionesses controlled proceedings until the second half when Australia threw everything at them and star striker Sam Kerr – starting her first match of the tournament – struck a 25-yard stunner over goalkeeper Mary Earps’ head to make it 1-1.
But England, as they so often do, found a way back into the game when Lauren Hemp pounced on a defensive error to restore their lead, before Alessia Russo made sure of victory late on to set up a final with Spain on Sunday.
Build-up to this semi-final has dominated every aspect of Australian life this week as cities across the country became absorbed in ‘Matildas Mania’.
Fans were queueing outside fan parks in Sydney five hours before kick-off, train stations were decorated in yellow and green balloons, shops sold out of merchandise, and newspapers had the players’ faces plastered over their front and back pages.
All focus was on the co-hosts’ attempts to create history, but England quietly went about their business and arrived in Sydney ready to compete in their third successive Women’s World Cup semi-final.
Their experience of handling big occasions was evident from the first minute as they disrupted Australia’s rhythm and made every attempt to frustrate the crowd, taking their time over throw-ins and breaking down dangerous counter-attacks.
It worked for large parts, but when Australia fought their way back into the game through Kerr, England had to find another way – and they did.
Backs against the wall, England’s defence, who have been magnificent throughout the tournament, stepped up to make blocks, tackles and head away relentless balls into the box.
“My thought was ‘we’re not going to give this away now’,” said Wiegman, reflecting on Australia’s equaliser. “You are never sure. But it was later in the game so we got through.”
Hemp and Russo’s flourishing partnership up front ultimately decided the game when they combined late on – Manchester City winger Hemp with a superb no-look pass to set-up Russo.
“That was just an incredible pass,” added Wiegman. “The finish was really good too. I’m really happy with the performance and the players themselves are happy too.”
England’s celebrations at full-time were initially subdued. They have created history but this is a team of winners and they have not finished yet.
Australia leave lasting impression as England show ruthlessness
England’s plan to stifle Australia’s intensity and quick counter-attacking football worked a treat.
From the first minute they showed they were not afraid to play with physicality, going in hard in 50-50 challenges and doing all it took to bring down Kerr and prevent her getting a run at England’s defence.
Keira Walsh set the tone with a crunching tackle on Kerr within two minutes and Alex Greenwood later came sliding in on the Chelsea striker, earning herself a yellow card, to prevent a dangerous break.
With each tackle came a ripple of boos from the home fans, while Earps was in no rush to get things going again on goal-kicks.
It was England who controlled things early on – although both teams created a few chances – as they had 70% of the ball in the opening 15 minutes.
Their control did not really waver as the first half wore on and the crowd became increasingly frustrated, whistling as England enjoyed prolonged periods of possession and passed through Australia’s press.
By the time the break arrived with England leading, the deafening roar which had greeted the players on their entrance had turned to polite applause as the Australians were still processing Toone’s superb strike.
The second half was a different story, however. Kerr’s sensational equaliser was followed by a dangerous strike from Cortnee Vine which called Earps into action.
Kerr headed another two chances over the bar, while Russo and Lucy Bronze came close at the other end for England.
However, it was the Lionesses who were more ruthless, keeping their composure in the big moments and delivering when it mattered.
“Knowing Sam, she will think that goal means nothing. She is a winner,” said Australia manager Tony Gustavsson.
“I know she’s upset that she missed those two chances at the end. We need to support her. She did everything she could tonight.
“The fact she played 90 minutes is unbelievable. It is a world-class goal and shows what Sam Kerr is about. We promised to leave every single thing out there and every player did.”
England will go into the final full of confidence having overcome every hurdle so far in the tournament.
But this has also been a World Cup to remember for the Matildas, who hope to change the perception of women’s football in this country forever.
It will be hard to ignore their impact and they were given a warm applause on a lap of honour at full-time.
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