The 2019 Women’s World Cup: The Quarters – England Fall Into Place
Norway 0-3 England
An excellent night marked by a few glitches in the last twenty minutes saw England through to the semi-finals of the 2019 Women’s World Cup tonight, a night upon which the team truly sparked to life following a succession of performances in this tournament best described as “effective.” For sixty minutes, England had Norway in a pretty solid headlock. They took just over 150 seconds to take the lead, were two up by half-time, and had the result beyond most reasonable doubt by a time an hour had passed. Just as has happened in previous matches, though, England lost their concentration in the final twenty minutes and only a combination of lacklustre Norwegian finishing and an outstanding goalkeeping performance from goalkeeper Karen Bardlsey maintained their clean sheet.
The first half started with a whodunnit. Was Ellen White’s swipe at the ball the most elaborate dummy thrown of all time or not? With the best will in the world I suspect not, but never mind. Jill Scott has rather made a habit of arriving late in the penalty area and she slid in to roll the ball across the goalkeeper and in off the base of the post. Nikita Parris shot high and wide when a pass to Ellen White was an even better position than hers was available. White also hit the post with a powerful shot across the face of goal.
But for all of this, there was still a heart in mouth moment when a shot from Guro Reiten hit Demi Stokes on the foot and bounced up against her arm. There was no review but the ball remained in play for some time afterwards, so an element of doubt remained even though it wasn’t deemed worthy of review. Five minutes from half-time, some raking football on the right hand side between Lucy Bronze and Nikita Parris led to Parris feeding the ball for White to score the goal that her first half menacing had merited.
Going off the boil in the second half matches has been an England thing during this tournament, but they started the second half as strongly as they’d finished the first, and twelve minutes in put the result beyond any reasonable doubt. A free-kick conceded on the right hand side looked fairly innocuous, but Beth Mead rolled the ball back for Lucy Bronze, inexplicably left unmarked twenty yards out, to drive an unstoppable shot into the roof of the goal to extend their lead to three-nil. It was a goal as good as any other scored in the tournament and put England’s place in the semi-finals beyond any further reasonable doubt.
For all this, though, England still had a nervy last twenty minutes. Midway through the half the changes to the team started, and the disruptive effect on the rhythm of the team was immediate. A poor clearance from Bardsley led to a shot from Utland which was clear from the line by Steph Houghton. Two minutes later, a mistake from Millie Bright gave Utland a second chance, which was smothered by Bardsley. A minute after this, Caroline Graham Hanson broke through for Norway, only for Bardsley to pull off a superb one-handed save from her low shot. England survived this five minutes with their clean sheet in touch, but it was a close-run thing.
There was still time for England to have a chance to extend their lead when Steph Houghton was shoved in the back from a set piece to earn them a penalty kick. Nikita Parris’s confidence in stepping up to take the penalty kick after having missed the previous one that she took against Argentina is commendable, but for the second time in a row she found herself confounded by an opposing goalkeeper as Ingrid Hjelmseth threw herself across the goal the paw her shot away from goal. In the overall scheme of things there are probably more pressing concerns that an international football team could have, but Phil Neville might be best advised to give some serious thought to selecting a new penalty taker before their upcoming semi-final match. A third consecutive penalty kick mess in a World Cup semi-final is probably not something that any international football manager should be able to countenance.
Norway will undoubtedly be disappointed to have surrendered their place in this tournament with such a whimper, but they struggled to deal with England’s attacking pace and fluidity for much of the game, and Hjelmseth’s penalty save prevented their margin of defeat from being even greater. But for some profligate finishing and some outstanding goalkeeping from Karen Bardsley, though, they might even have found a way back into this match from three goals down. In the end, they didn’t quite have the wit to find their way through an England defence that has now kept four consecutive clean sheets, albeit by the skin of its teeth, at times.
England, meanwhile, continue to grow into this World Cup. Up to last night, they had been solid and workmanlike rather than spectacular, getting the results that they needed without ever looking like a team particularly capable of winning it. Yesterday evening, however, the players grew into their roles. Ellen White was a constant attacking threat, Nikita Parris a terrier-like presence on the wing, Lucy Bronze an inspirational channel through which much of their best play emerged, and Karen Bardsley – who was a spectator for almost the entirety of their previous game against Cameroon – pulled off a string of superb saves when finally called upon.
There remain doubts, of course, most notably in that ten minute spell in the second half afforded Norway enough chances to find a route back into the match. It’s difficult to imagine either France or the United States of America, who play tonight for the right to play England in the semi-finals, being similarly wasteful in front of goal. England have had occasional moments of defensive lapse throughout the tournament already and have ridden their luck somewhat in getting away with these. With a place in the final now just ninety minutes away, there will be no room for similar failures in concentration in their next match. For now, though, England can bask in the warming glow of a job well done. Through to the semi-finals of the World Cup with a bit to spare, they’ll look like genuine contenders if they can finally shake off those occasional moments of defensive muddle-headedness.