Lucy Bronze has always felt that her spectacular goal against Norway in the round of 16 at Canada 2015 was the moment which elevated her to where she now stands: at the pinnacle of the women’s game. Here in Le Havre, against the very same opponents, she matched - perhaps bettered - that extraordinary strike to send England to their second successive World Cup semi-final.
England’s best and most accomplished player led the way: setting up the first, contributing to the second and scoring the third, a thumping, emphatic hit from outside the box that evoked memories of that goal in Ottawa. Bronze’s performances here and throughout the tournament have deserved a special moment. This was it.
Beth Mead was stood over the free-kick out on the right flank. She raised her right hand, eyes fixed on a crowded penalty box, but cut a pass the lone figure standing on its edge. Bronze had spent the days before this quarter-final dry-running this move, generating the power and lift she would need to score from this range. Practice makes perfect.
It was the crowning moment of a convincing performance. Victory over Norway and passage to the last four had rarely looked in doubt once Jill Scott opened the scoring after just 124 seconds and Ellen White continued her rich vein of form by doubling England’s lead before half time. Nikita Parris could even afford to miss a late penalty.
Phil Neville and his players will now last the duration. They travel to Lyon – the home of Bronze’s all-conquering club side – to play either France or the United States in the last four. It will not be easy. Whoever they face on Tuesday night will be the favourites to win the tournament outright. But after this, the most complete display of their time in France to date, England will be confident.
This, after all, was the game on which they would be judged. Win and England would emulate Mark Sampson’s 2015 side by reaching the last four, immunising themselves from criticism. Lose and Neville will have failed to live up hopes and expectations he was happy to build a few weeks ago. Such are the stakes of knock-out tournament football.
Yet if England had felt the weight of the occasion in any way, they would not show it. In fact, they could hardly have made a better start. Scott scored the fastest goal of this tournament to date and the fastest of any England World Cup campaign. It was untidy, scuffed and in off the far post, but White’s wild air-kick had left her with little time to react.
The breakthrough owed everything to Bronze. It was her surge down Norway’s left, one of several in the first half, that had forced the issue. Another authoritative burst out of her natural full-back position, slaloming past several Norwegians, drew sharp gasps of breath around Stade Oceane. She and Parris were running the show down the right.
England were vulnerable until the second, though. There was once again a lack of control in the middle of the park, with Kiera Walsh particularly struggling at times, and loose attempts at playing out of the back invited unnecessary pressure. Fortunately for Neville, Norway created little of note and his own side were having no such problems.
White had already smacked one attempt against the upright before showing the predatory instinct her manager has recently praised, staying onside to convert Parris’ selfless cutback. Her fifth goal in four games made her England’s top scorer in World Cup history. There were seven players ahead of her in those standings three weeks ago.
Norway would surely pose a greater threat in the second half, and there was an early scare when the ball fell kindly for the ever-dangerous Caroline Graham Hansen inside the six-yard box. Steph Houghton, still nursing an ankle injury sustained against Cameroon, came across quickly to steal and shepherd possession away.
There would be several other hairy moments and Millie Bright, one of those struck down by a virus in the days leading up to this quarter-final, was often at the centre of them. She was understandably out-of-sorts and Neville’s decision to select her ahead of either Abbie McManus or Leah Williamson could be questioned.
The England manager also a decision to make regarding Parris, who missed her second of three penalties, on the same patch of grass that she missed from against Argentina. Parris will take comfort from the fact that this was her best performance since the opening game victory over Scotland, at least.
But by the time Norway began benefitting from spot-kick saves and exploiting the hint of carelessness that sometimes crept into England’s play, they were already three goals down, their supporters were already searching Skyscanner, filling the cheapest and quickest flights home the next morning, while Bronze and her team-mates were celebrating another World Cup semi-final.
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