Wherever you looked, history was against England. Take your pick: their record of only winning a handful of their many previous meetings with Sweden; the fact that their semi-final opponents were the highest-ranked team at this Women’s European Championship and unbeaten in 90 minutes since 2019; or, perhaps most pertinently of all, the Lionesses’ three consecutive semi-final defeats at their last three major international tournaments. The record books provided little comfort.
Yet as Sarina Wiegman has insisted throughout this tournament, history counts for nothing. The Lionesses are one game away from winning their first major tournament, having booked their place in Sunday’s Wembley final in emphatic style. Four unanswered goals –the third being a truly sensational backheel by Alessia Russo – put world-class opposition to the sword at Bramall Lane and ensured that the Lionesses progress to their biggest game in 13 years with all the momentum they need.
This was not exactly like the beating handed out to the other Scandinavian side they faced at this tournament. Sweden were the better side for the opening half hour and, had they converted one of several opportunities that England presented them, this semi-final could have taken an entirely different course. Yet once top scorer Beth Mead scored her sixth of this Euros, Wiegman’s side were in control. Lucy Bronze doubled the lead at the start of the second half, while Fran Kirby rounded off a memorable evening.
Wiegman named the same starting line-up that began England’s journey through this tournament five games ago, ignoring any clamour to include the likes of Russo, Alex Greenwood and Ella Toone, even after their game-changing impact off the substitutes’ bench against Spain. Swedish coach Peter Gerhardsson has preferred to keep opponents guessing on this run to these semi-finals but stuck with a four-at-the-back system, despite suggestions he might switch to a three.
Whether England were expecting that or not, there was a repeat of the slow starts seen against Austria and Spain. Sofia Jakobsson would have opened the scoring inside the first minute after latching onto Stina Blackstenius’s pass in behind if not for Mary Earps’s boot getting in the way. The Lionesses’ goalkeeper had to be alert again minutes later to deny Blackstenius one-on-one, though Bronze was following in from behind to make sure that the Arsenal striker scuffed her tame shot. Blackstenius’s header from the resulting corner hit the bar.
When Bronze then lost the ball cheaply to Fridolina Rolfo, inviting arguably Sweden’s most dangerous attacking outlet the chance to break in behind and shoot into the side-netting, there could be no argument: England had not started well at all. What’s more, this was becoming exactly the type of contest that played into their opponents’ hands, full of fast transitions executed at a breathless pace. Even though this meant Wiegman’s side were having their own opportunities to break forward, they were failing to take them.
Until suddenly, they did. The move that led to the first started like several that had come before and led to nothing. Yet this time, Lauren Hemp stayed on the blindside of her marker and burst in down the left. Her cross narrowly evaded Ellen White, running all the way out to the opposite flank, where it was sent back in by Bronze. The ball was behind Mead but, with her back to goal, she brought it down into her command with her first touch and shot through the flailing dive of goalkeeper Hedvig Lindahl with her second.
Goals change games and so it was for this semi-final. The composure and control previously absent in the Lionesses’ play was suddenly found. Keira Walsh, excellent with her use of the ball in midfield, began to set the calm, collected tempo that lasted all the way up until half-time. And within minutes of both sides re-emerging, England were two up. Much had been made of Sweden’s threat from attacking set-pieces in the build-up but Gerhardsson may look to work on defending them too.
Mead’s deep, outswinging corner travelled all the way to the far post, then Bronze’s header passed through a sea of yellow to nestle in at the front. A brief VAR check investigated whether Hemp had stood in Lindahl’s eyeline and found nothing untoward, although Sweden might still curse their luck. After seeing five of their own ruled out by the technology during this tournament, playmaker Kosovare Asllani described VAR’s implementation at this Euros as a “catastrophe”. It had worked against them once more.
England’s second would not be decisive, though. Their place in their first Euros final since 2009 was all but confirmed by an outrageous third. Russo continues to stake a claim for a start and after scoring with a backheel nutmeg, maybe even Wiegman will start to listen. The Manchester United striker more than made up for missing a golden opportunity seconds before, shooting straight at Lindahl from point-blank range. The chance seemed to have gone when she retrieved the ball with her back to goal but the improvisational, ingenious finish that followed may well be remembered as the goal of this tournament.
Kirby’s goal added a sheen of dominance to the scoreline that was perhaps undeserved. Then again, from Sweden’s perspective, it was preventable. Lindahl got two hands on the Chelsea playmaker’s clipped shot from the edge of the box but somehow let it pass through them and bounce over the line. The Sweden goalkeeper could not handle it, much like her teammates had not handled England once they went ahead. The last time the Lionesses reached the final of this tournament they lost 6-2. Germany, their conquerors that night, or France are waiting on Sunday. But what does history matter when England are writing their own?