England pushed to limit, but show spirit and willpower to set up semifinal blockbuster

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SYDNEY — Alessia Russo stopped running twice all game. Against the backdrop of yellow and blue, she ran, jostled and kept ongoing. The first time she stood still all match was after she scored the winner. The second time she slowed to a walk was when she was substituted in the 84th minute having run her heart out.

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Her performance was emblematic of England‘s 2-1 win over Colombia. For all the distractions, the off-the-ball tugs here and there and the hostile atmosphere, England players kept their heads down, stuck to the task in hand and got the job done.

Russo’s winner was justification for the amount of work she put in. All game she was trying to run off the shoulder of the Colombia back four, she was dropping deep to try and bring others into the game, and after having a header well-saved in the first half, she took her second chance in a split second, firing the winner low back across the keeper. “I try to work as hard as I can on the pitch,” Russo said afterward. “There is often a bit of luck in football and yeah, I was glad that I took it when it came.”

If England are to end up winning this World Cup, they will be doing it in an altogether different manner to their Euros triumph last year. There will be no partisan support roaring them home, there’s been adversity and instead of some of the expansive, comfortable wins we saw last summer, this is going to be ground out with the players straining every sinew to get this over the line.

At full time, defender Lucy Bronze was sitting on the floor, wearing a Colombia shirt, staring into the middle distance. Rachel Daly was having treatment on her knee. Some of the players exhaled. Others got their legs moving to the backdrop of “Sweet Caroline.” But generally, you felt the overwhelming emotion was a concoction of relief and quiet satisfaction.

This was yet another test for England, a different one to those they’ve faced so far in Australia. They had to contend with Colombia’s physicality, their rapid transitions and the fleet-footed brilliance of Linda Caicedo. Colombia had more of a threat up front than their round of 16 opponents Nigeria did, and were far better organised than the teams they faced in the group stage.

So at times it resembled a controlled arm-wrestle. England manager Sarina Wiegman stuck with the 3-5-2 which served them well against China, and edged them through against Nigeria. It proved effective again, with Alex Greenwood outstanding, Russo and Lauren Hemp linking well up front and Georgia Stanway superb in midfield. It’s the group they’ll keep together for the semifinal.

There are aspects of this performance that Wiegman will be delighted with. There’s the control with which they played. To win a World Cup you need the occasional minimiracle, and it’s testament to England’s self-control that they came through this without any bookings. Bronze, Stanway and Hemp all had yellow cards hanging over their heads from the group stage but came through unscathed and therefore available for the semifinal. In a tournament where Wiegman says she has never dealt with so many unpredictable events (Keira Walsh‘s knee injury against Denmark, Lauren James‘ red card against Nigeria) this is one case of the cards falling in her favour.

“I think they did a tremendous job by being aggressive and you have to play duels to win,” Wiegman said. “In one moment you can pick up a yellow card. But yes, they were controlled and aggressive but didn’t go over the edge. That’s well done.”

Then there was their perseverance. This is the first time a team has come from behind to win a match in the knockout stages of this tournament, and England showed immense character to strike before half-time with Hemp’s poacher’s finish after an error from keeper Catalina Pérez, forced by Russo pressure. On other occasions, Hemp linked up well with Russo up front, with the two pulling Colombia’s defence around, and creating room for Bronze and Daly to charge in behind.

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England’s Bright ready for Australia semifinal: ‘Bring it on!’

Millie Bright speaks after England fight back from a goal down vs. Colombia to reach the World Cup semifinals.

Then there’s the way they managed the hostile atmosphere. Every time England started to get some possession, the crowd whistled. The same reception greeted every England set piece and call against Colombia. It was so different to the wall of white and red last summer, but it will be the same against Australia in Sydney on Wednesday. “We know it’s an away game so we said let’s try and turn that around as an inspiration for us and let’s focus on our task,” Wiegman said.

There are also aspects that England will address ahead of Australia, both individually and collectively. They will look at the chances Colombia created. Their goal came with a stroke of luck — though it was a perfectly weighted chip by Leicy Santos to clear Mary Earps‘ outstretched arms, Earps won’t make that same mistake again with her positioning. Earps also made an outstanding save in the second half off Lorena Bedoya’s long drive and there were moments where the back three was tested as Colombia found space in behind wing backs Bronze and Daly.

Meanwhile Walsh, an outstanding No. 6, doesn’t look as settled in this system as she does in the 4-2-3-1 — she looks far more comfortable playing in the pivot role in front of two centre-backs, than a back three. And they’re still looking for a way to bring Ella Toone into the game more in that No.10 role.

But that’s for tomorrow. Wiegman will go through a crash course on the England-Australia rivalry over the next 24 hours to understand the significance of this matchup, and they’ll go back to their Terrigal base and tweak plans for the Matildas. But this was a night where England came through a tricky test unscathed, and found a way to grind out things out. And no one displayed that perseverance more than Russo.

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