Sarina Wiegman’s very different England write yet more history


“You asked: ‘Are you ready to write history?’ I think this is history,” Sarina Wiegman declared. She was right, too. This was the biggest win in European Championship semi-final history, in fact, whether you consult the record books of the men’s or the women’s game. Rarely does a team come this far into any tournament and go home with a nose as bloody as Sweden’s was by full time at Bramall Lane. Rarely does a team reach a major final with a display of the control, authority and outright domination demonstrated by England.

Rarely does an England team play that well full stop, in fact. Never mind the comparisons to the men’s national side, inevitable though they are, and their many, equally inevitable disappointments down the years.

The Lionesses have had their fair share of glorious and inglorious failures as well over the years, not least the three semi-final exits in a row since 2015. There were own goals in two of those defeats, a late penalty saved in the other. These nights are supposed to be near misses, pockmarked by painful moments.

They tend to be remembered by the sort of thing that happened in the 68th minute of this spectacular 4-0 victory, seconds before the third goal that clinched it. Alessia Russo had made a busy start since coming on as a substitute for Ellen White, almost immediately assisting Lauren Hemp with a devilish cross that her teammate somehow turned against the underside of the crossbar from point-blank range. That had been a bad miss, and would be the worst of the night, but Russo was about to provide it with some competition.

A combination of Fran Kirby’s cut-back across the centre of the penalty area and Russo’s own intelligent movement away from the retreating Swedish defence gave her practically the entire goal to aim at from a distance of nine yards. Yet Russo fired straight at goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl. The ball spun away from goal. The chance appeared to have gone. Russo, chasing down and retrieving the ball, now had her back to Lindahl. A pass out to the right wing would be the sensible option. The typical thing to do.

Instead, in a moment of ingenuity that you will surely have seen by now, Russo scored not only the goal of the tournament but the goal of her life, backheeling the ball past an encroaching Swedish defender and through Lindahl’s legs.

A miss that would have been remembered for the wrong reasons had Sweden managed to wipe out their two-goal deficit was instead rendered irrelevant by a moment that typified the joy with which England have played all summer. Remarkably, Russo is now second in the Golden Boot rankings – two behind Beth Mead’s tally of six – despite still not starting a single game.

You would not confidently wager any money on the Manchester United striker being selected for Sunday’s final against France or Germany at a sold-out Wembley either, even after scoring that goal. Whether or not she should replace all-time leading scorer White – who hit two in the 8-0 rout of Norway but has otherwise maintained her rut of the past season – will be debated in the coming days. The traditional logic and reason of English football would dictate that Russo, as the form player, should have replaced her a long time ago.

Backheel brilliance: Russo scored a sensational third for England (Reuters)
Backheel brilliance: Russo scored a sensational third for England (Reuters)

But then even Wiegman’s stubborn faith in White leading the line feels like something new and a little refreshing. This is not an England manager who will blow with the wind of public opinion or be swayed by a player’s scoring streak when coming on against tired legs.

“Before every game we take so many things into consideration. The starting team that has started all the time has done really well,” Wiegman explained afterwards. This is a team working to a plan and, what’s more, that plan is working.

Perhaps that is why her England feels different to what has come before. It is now 19 unbeaten for Wiegman after a little less than a year in the job, with more than 100 goals scored.

You can count the amount conceded on one hand. It is an extraordinary record that says as much about this team’s promising future as it does its recent past.

But Wiegman’s history-makers have one step left to take before they truly earn that tag: they need to win their first major international tournament. At Wembley on Sunday, they will have a chance to do just that.

Published by anthonyhayble

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