England's women had the might of Abba on their side against Sweden at Ewood Park last night. For all the wing power of the poptastically named Rachel Abba Yankey, however, Hope Powell's troops could not quite survive their Waterloo. In their final group game of the European Women's Championship, the lionesses did themselves proud with a rousing performance, but ultimately failed to recover from an early self-inflicted wound.
Requiring a draw to advance to the semi-finals, Powell's hopefuls fell behind to an early goal gifted to Anna Sjostrom by Katie Chapman. Try as they did, roared on by a mighty crowd of 25,694, they were unable to summon an equaliser. The English women have not beaten the Swedes since 1984 and, unfortunately for them, this was another occasion on which the history book on the shelf managed to repeat itself.
Having watched her side suffer a fit of the Devon Lochs within sight of the qualifying line at Ewood on Wednesday night, Powell made changes to her starting line-up yesterday, drafting Eniola Aluko into attack in place of Amanda Barr and entrusting Rachel Brown with the goalkeeping duties, Jo Fletcher dropping to the bench.
For Aluko, an 18-year-old student at Cadbury College in Birmingham, it was a swift graduation, three days after sitting her A-level history exam and playing as a second-half substitute in England's 2-1 defeat against Denmark.
Powell's side had been within minutes of a guaranteed place in the last four before their midweek capitulation at Ewood, and the head coach - a midfielder in the England side beaten on penalties by Sweden in the final of the inaugural tournament 21 years ago - was anxious to avoid any hint of a hangover going into last night's contest. With just three minutes on the clock, though, she had a major headache to overcome.
A corner swung into the home goalmouth from the left by Therese Sjogran, the Swedish midfielder, hit Chapman, but instead of clearing the danger the Charlton midfielder merely deflected the ball into the path of Sjostrom, who applied the finishing touch from point-blank range. It was a dreadful blunder and it might have been worse for England before they managed to gain a measure of composure. With the home guard distinctly unsettled, Caroline Seger slid a fine through-ball to Hanna Ljungberg, who hoisted a hasty lob over the England crossbar.
It took a dazzling right-wing run by Yankey to force the Swedes on to the back foot and raise the spirits of the home crowd. It might have led to a penalty for a push on Karen Carney, but the referee, Nicole Petignat, turned a deaf ear to the English protests. Kelly Smith also teed up the roving Yankey for a shot from the left edge of the Swedish penalty area that drew the first save of the night from Hedvig Lindahl.
With Yankey and Carney switching flanks to good effect and Aluko's pace threatening Sweden through the middle, an England equaliser looked a distinct possibility. It very nearly arrived in the 35th minute, in the most bizarre of circumstances. With her fleetness of foot, Aluko got herself in the way of an attempted clearance by Lindahl, the ball smacking off her face and rolling tantalisingly across the face of the Swedish goal and an inch or two wide of the left post. It was a close call for the Swedes, and there was another in the penultimate minute of the opening half, Faye White getting her head to a Carney corner in the goalmouth, only for Jane Tornqvist to nod it over the bar.
Yankey also sent a swerving drive whistling over the bar before Sweden reached half-time with their lead intact. They were fortunate to remain in pole position and they were struggling to hold it as England picked up their attacking tempo after the interval. Within three minutes of the resumption, Yankey and Smith combined to furnish Aluko with a scoring opportunity that came to nought only because of the swift intervention of Kristin Bengtsson. Three minutes later Sara Larsson deflected wide a Carney drive, but it might well have been all over for Powell's side in the 63rd minute.
Ljungberg angled an inviting ball to her attacking partner Victoria Svensson, but Brown was quick to spot the danger and executed a brilliant blocking challenge before the Swede could shoot. Thus reprieved, England continued to chase the lone-goal deficit with vigour. From a right-wing cross by Carney, a clever first-time flick by Yankey almost caught Lindahl napping. Almost, but not quite.
In the final quarter, Powell sent on Barr for Carney but still England could not get on to level terms. At the deflating blast of the final whistle, it was the winners from Sweden who took it all.
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