Georgia Stanway stood on her own, isolated in a pocket of space. With her hands in the air, she saw the move before it unfolded. England had been searching for the gaps against Colombia, but going behind only sharpened their focus. After the explosion of Colombia’s goal, England could have lost their heads, but Stanway found hers and then the space. One thumping finish from Alessia Russo later and England were heading towards the semi-finals of the World Cup.
Arguably, no one deserves this semi-final more than the Bayern Munich midfielder. Stanway had to be disciplined when Keira Walsh was injured, constrained when Lauren James was given the keys to England’s creative output. With James suspended, Stanway was released. With the bite in midfield to combat Colombia’s physicality, then the cool to pick holes in their defensive shape. Having to play through four games on a yellow card has meanwhile forced Stanway to do it all on a knife-edge, controlling the aggression when one wrong moment would have taken her semi-final away.
The Lionesses also had to earn it, in a difficult contest that passed by in waves of England control and frantic Colombia pressure. The atmosphere fed into it: Colombia turned up in their numbers, dominating the 75,000 capacity stadium and its soundtrack; hostile when England had possession, electric when Colombia flew forward, the noise rising further when Linda Caicedo drove them on. England faced the battle they had been expecting.
Then Colombia scored and a tournament that has been defined by obstacles was presented with a new one, as England trailed for the first time in the World Cup. But Stanway epitomised how England responded and took to their task. It was a different type of resilience to what England relied on at the end, continuing to show, on the ball and off it. She used her intelligence, baiting Colombia players in and waiting a moment, before releasing it. As a whole, there wasn’t a panic. Lauren Hemp’s equaliser was scrappy, arriving in a mess in the penalty box, but it had been coming. If anything, going behind sharpened England.
England’s plan was clear enough: they had their control and build-up, neat passages of play as they found the gaps in Colombia’s shape, threading passes through for Stanway and Ella Toone to turn. England were sharper than against Nigeria, even if the final ball was missing. With James’s two-match ban forcing another rethink for Wiegman, the England manager combined something new with something old. The midfield three returned, with Stanway and Toone deployed as twin eights in front of England’s back five.
But Colombia reached the quarter-finals by ensuring those spells do not last for long. Between England’s passing moves, Colombia rattled them and threatened with their quality, thriving off the match being in a scrappy and disrupted state. The South Americans broke England’s passing up and tore whatever momentum they were building down, a series of fouls to pause England’s flow. Then there were the challenges: Ana Guzman barging into Hemp, then leaving an arm on Rachel Daly, Santos pulling Stanway back by the arm.
And in those spells England were sloppy, five-yard passes hit straight out of play, allowing themselves to take the safe or easy option, turning down the chance to turn. When Santos’s cross drifted in over the head of Mary Earps, England were faced with the worst.
The response was crucial. In the six minutes of added time at the end of the first half, England stuck to how they had set up to play. The way Colombia were positioned allowed England to have those gaps in midfield and there was always a player to find. England had to be patient, to move it quickly enough and have the confidence to do more when they could turn.
Hemp everywhere across the frontline, taking pressure off England with bursts downfield. Russo struggled to hold the ball up, but produced the devastating finish when it counted. England dropped deep, perhaps too early, but they did so safe in the knowledge that they had Millie Bright in this form. Bright was faultless as England defended their box, alongside the exceptional Alex Greenwood. It wasn’t the perfect team performance but this tournament has been about finding a way through. England are enjoying it, while Stanway just offers them that bit more.
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