England’s Lionesses have given the nation a lot to celebrate in the past couple of weeks but none more so than on Tuesday night, which was truly one to remember. Coming up against the second-ranked team in the world, Sweden, fighting for their place in a major final since 2009 and playing in front of an expectant home crowd, you’d be forgiven for thinking it might all be too much for the team, but this is a generation of Lionesses who have benefited from a vastly improved national league and who are led by a cool, clinical and, importantly, winning manager in Sarina Wiegman, so as with every other challenge that has faced them during her tenure, the Lionesses not only did the job, they made it look easy. Is it time perhaps to dream of the impossible: whisper it – It’s coming home!
Audacious Alessia – There has been talk of poor goalkeeping, but such comments are an absolute disservice to Alessia Russo’s audaciously sublime goal. Had Messi scored this, there would be proclamations of his genius, calls to erect statues and have the goal named in his honour. So why not Russo? After all, forgive me if I’m wrong, but I’m not sure there’s been another back-heel nutmeg goal on the world stage (Google seems not to think so either). We’ve got the Cryuff turn, the Panenka, and back-heel nutmeg goal just doesn’t have quite the same ring to it as the Russo, does it? Whether or not the moniker slips into everyday football parlance or not, however, let’s take absolutely nothing away from it. Mere seconds before, Russo had, in truth, missed a sitter. Lesser-calibre players may still have been ruing their chance, standing still watching on, but not so Alessia Russo, who not only ensured she won the ball back, but then had the quickness of thought, skill and chutzpah to try the unexpected, which may just explain for all those naysayers why the Swedish goalkeeper failed to react. It was frankly the last thing anyone would anticipate, unless you’re Alessia Russo. And it was the sort of goal that the Puskas Award was created for, the sort of goal children all over the country attempt, that five-a-side players the world over dream of scoring, and to do so on the European stage in a semi-final is sheer brilliance. No doubt there’ll be a few mini Lionesses on their school holidays today practising the ‘Russo’.
Fighter Fran – Five months ago, Fran Kirby was sidelined from the game, suffering from a fatigue illness. Her inclusion in Sarina Wiegman’s squad may have raised some eyebrows, with question marks over her fitness, her ability to play back-to-back games, to contribute in a meaningful way, but if we’ve learnt anything these last couple of weeks, it’s not to question seer Sarina’s wisdom. And so it’s proved with Fran. The group-stage games may not have seen the Chelsea forward shine as she has done so often, but each proved valuable in building up her match fitness and her confidence, and Tuesday night we saw Fran growing back to her inimitable best. It was a complete performance, with her trademark probing attacking play, culminating in a deserved goal from a speculative effort, as well as a crucial penalty-box tackle that with most forwards would end in a penalty and yellow card. At 29, Fran has been through more than most in the game, on and off the pitch, but there is no doubting that she remains a crucial cog in the Lionesses’ wheel, and with her purring, whoever England face in the final need to be worried.
Immovable Mary – Let’s be honest, if we’re talking about a goalkeeper after a game, it’s usually not a positive, but Mary Earps’ contribution last night was as vital as any of England’s outfield players, if not more so. A save within the first thirty seconds set the tone, not only for Earps’ confidence but for that of the team. Okay, there was a questionable decision on a corner in the first half, but such is the makeup of all goalkeepers, half skittish, half cool as a cucumber. And that was the only moment of doubt in an otherwise flawless performance, from a goalkeeper, who, backed up by her stalwart defence, has only conceded one goal so far this tournament. It was her fingertip save in the second half, though, that really showed her quality, and perhaps it’s just me, but I was very much getting Jordan Pickford for England vibes in Earps’ confident, constant solidity and marshalling at the back. Like Keira Walsh and Millie Bright who have been exceptional throughout the tournament, Mary Earps may go under the radar, but her performance in Sheffield was, without question, a match-winner.
Ultimate Team Player – Debate over team selection will always be one that rages around any football match and in an international tournament, all the more so. For England, that has boiled down in recent games to the simple dichotomy of Russo or White when it comes to the starting XI. But the answer is far from simple, with pros and cons, backers and critics in each camp. For my part, I think Sarina has got it spot on, starting with Ellen who works tirelessly up top from the off, and bringing on Alessio fresh in the second half to take advantage of a jaded defence. There is nothing to say if the roles were reserved it wouldn’t be just as effective, and that given her impressive strike rate Russo doesn’t deserve the start, but tactically it seems to me that White starting and Russo off the bench seems a more effective play. Whatever option is used in the final, both strikers bring an incredible amount to the team, but at 33 White continues to display her quality as the ultimate team player. Her emotion at reaching Sunday’s final was heart-warming, but wouldn’t it just be fitting if England women’s record goalscorer equalled, or dare we even imagine it, surpassed Wayne Rooney as England’s overall top scorer in the final. And then if Russo comes on and scores another worldie too, I think fans of both players will be happy enough.
Final thoughts – A year on from the Three Lions’ breakthrough tournament, football has once again lifted a nation’s spirits. And it’s thrilling to see the Lionesses getting the support and backing of their male counterparts – and, indeed, throughout the tournament, from their male counterparts. Ian Wright has been a notable supporter, but seeing Premier League stars like Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Harry Maguire out visibly supporting their teams and the tournament has been encouraging. For women who have been involved in the game, the tournament has also inspired a lot of pride. At times, in recent decades, it has been easy to look on and hear talk of progress and growth but really not see it evidenced. The backing given to the WSL, though, does seem to have provided a genuine turning point, but there will be many who fear it may not last. Every tournament there is talk of legacy, of kicking on, of moving forward, but in the past, largely it has proven to be just that – talk. Yes, the game has developed in each of those moments, but it hasn’t seen the sea change that many had hoped. Already, this tournament seems to be setting something in motion, and whilst a second-placed finish would be something to be proud of, winning the Euros, I feel, would have an everlasting effect. There is, to some extent, a feeling of déjà vu, to last summer, when the men had the chance to end 55 years of hurt, but sadly missed out at the final hurdle. Perhaps it’s fate that the women now have the chance to end this long wait for a trophy and how much greater their legacy, the lasting effect, should they be the ones to do so. And, who knows, by Christmas, we could have gone from 56 years without a trophy to winning two in six months, as Women’s Euros champions and Men’s World Cup champions, but I’m not getting carried away.