When England broke the Matildas | Sunday Observer

When England broke the Matildas

20 August, 2023
England players celebrate
England players celebrate

It started as a night full of optimism in Sydney as thousands flooded into Stadium Australia desperate to see their team create history - but England had other ideas.

England arrived this time, not with hope, but with expectation, despite experiencing heartache in previous back-to-back Women’s World Cup semi-finals.

Memories of defeats by Japan in 2015 and the USA in 2019 were cast aside - any doubts the Lionesses would not succeed this time disappeared as they played with swagger and composure, producing arguably their greatest-ever performance in the 3-1 win over the Matildas.

As the higher-ranked side and the European champions, England would in theory have underwhelmed if they had lost. But in practice, the task was much tougher - they had to overcome serious injuries and adapt throughout the tournament before meeting fierce Australian opposition.

In the end, the performance they produced was a culmination of two years’ worth of sensational growth under manager Sarina Wiegman, whose status as the world’s best is unquestionable.

Having led England to Euro 2022 glory last summer on home soil, the Dutchwoman will now coach in a fourth successive major tournament final. Before joining England, she led the Netherlands to the Euro 2017 title and runners-up spot at the 2019 World Cup.

The squad have evolved under her leadership from being near-misses and contenders to relentless winners and tournament favourites.

Matildas Mania’ had taken over Australia during their World Cup run, with their success dominating the front and back pages of every national newspaper. The momentum they had built en route to the semi-finals made for a carnival atmosphere in Sydney on Wednesday.

Streets were painted in green and yellow, supporters queued for hours to get into fan parks across the city and there were barely any shops left selling merchandise, with most stock sold out.

The match was sold out too; 75,784 fans piled into the stadium, most of them booing the England players as they emerged for the warm-ups, and then belting out their national anthem with pride.

But England were not fazed by any of it. They have lived in the bubble of their base camp out in Terrigal, an hour from Sydney, for the duration of the tournament and they arrived for the semi-final apparently oblivious to the hostility of the home crowd.

A crunching tackle from Keira Walsh on Australia’s superstar Sam Kerr within two minutes set the tone. The next 15 minutes was a masterclass in killing momentum.

Whatever feverish excitement had built throughout the week, England dampened quickly as they controlled possession, broke up play and frustrated the home crowd by taking their time over set-pieces.

A few half-chances came Australia’s way - Kerr raced through on goal and was offside when goalkeeper Mary Earps blocked her strike - but England brushed them off instantly.

At the other end, Lauren Hemp and Alessia Russo’s flourishing partnership up front caused havoc for Australia as they linked up instinctively, creating chances and terrifying the hosts’ defence.

It was not a surprise when the Lionesses took the lead through Ella Toone, someone synonymous with the big stage; she is the first England player to score in a major tournament quarter-final, semi-final and final. The deafening roars that had greeted the Matildas on their entrance at Stadium Australia were quietened by half-time but England did not become complacent. They had been here before, they knew the score.

The fierce pressure promised by Australia arrived in the second half. Kerr burst into life, pouncing on England’s lost possession and scoring a sublime long-range goal to make it 1-1.

In past semi-finals, this may have been the moment England’s players began to doubt themselves. But this is a squad built on resilience and lifted with unwavering belief.

Another goal would come - they knew it would - and when the moment arrived, Hemp did not hesitate.

“I just want to be fearless, I want to show what I can do on the biggest stage,” she said afterwards, having earlier stated England’s intentions to go all the way in the tournament.

By the time Hemp linked up with Russo to add England’s third, Australia’s balloon had burst.

Meanwhile, England were creating more history, having come through a test that required steeliness and experience, yet the scenes of celebration at full-time were short-lived.

The Lionesses allowed themselves just a few minutes of dancing and applause, greeted by another rendition of Sweet Caroline by the travelling support, before heading down the tunnel. Job done. (BBC sport)