England have answered every challenge they have faced at the Women’s World Cup, but it will be nothing compared to what is likely to await them in the semi-finals.
Having seen off the tenacity and unpredictable skill of Colombia in the 2-1 quarter-final win, the Lionesses set up a showdown with co-hosts Australia on Wednesday, two games away from glory.
England had to come from behind on Saturday – the first team in the knockout stages of this year’s competition to win despite conceding first – and did so in front of a crowd of 75,784 fans, the majority of whom were vociferously backing Colombia.
England beat Nigeria in a penalty shootout in the last 16, then dealt with the first game of a two-match suspension for top-scorer Lauren James.
Key midfielder Keira Walsh was also ruled out of the final group game through injury, adding to a list of big names nursing injuries back home.
Manager Sarina Wiegman said she had “never experienced so many problems” after the last-16 tie with Nigeria, but what has emerged is a hardened resilience and a relentless will to win which has carried England through to the semi-finals.
Now England face a fresh challenge against co-hosts Australia, who have gone further than they have before and will be spurred on by a passionate home crowd.
The co-hosts of the tournament have carried the hopes of a nation, embracing the pressure and using it to their advantage to see off Olympic champions Canada and European giants France en route to the last four.
A hostile crowd will await England in the semi-finals and, while this is nothing they have not faced before – Colombia certainly did not make them feel welcome in Sydney – the impact of a sold-out home crowd is something Wiegman’s side know only too well after reaping the benefit at Euro 2022.
Australia have not only built momentum on the pitch with their agonising dramatic penalty shootout win over France in the quarter-finals, but they are transforming support off it.
Free-to-air viewing figures have gone through the roof in Australia, its flagship Channel 7 pushed back its 6pm news bulletin on Saturday, and kick-off times for other sports events, including Aussie rules, have been moved to avoid fixture clashes with the Matildas.
Fan festivals and large outdoor screens have popped up across Sydney city centre and now a nation which obsessed in a cricket rivalry with England in the Ashes this summer are set to embrace the latest battle between the countries in football.
Aside from being the highest-ranked team England have faced so far – they have avoided the world’s top 10 up to this point – Tony Gustavsson’s side are the only country to have beaten the Lionesses under Wiegman’s management, ending a 30-match unbeaten run in April.
Matildas superstar Sam Kerr has not played a full match in the tournament yet as she returns to full fitness following injury, but she came on in the 55th minute against France and scored her penalty in the shootout, having made it through extra time unscathed.
She could be timing her return to full fitness just in time to face England, and Kerr will relish the opportunity to face two defenders she knows better than most, Chelsea team-mates Millie Bright and Jess Carter.
It is a mouth-watering tie with intriguing challenges on and off the pitch for England, but they can take heart and confidence from what they have already overcome.
When England lost Walsh against China, Wiegman adapted and introduced a rarely seen formation featuring a back three. It led to their best performance of the tournament in a 6-1 thrashing, and they produced an immense defensive display against Colombia having kept the same formation.
After James was sent off against Nigeria, with England already struggling to get a stranglehold on the game, the Lionesses dug in to see out extra time and delivered under pressure in the shootout.
England started well against Colombia in the quarter-finals yet went 1-0 down when a wonder strike from Leicy Santos caught out goalkeeper Mary Earps, but the Lionesses’ response was swift and decisive.
Criticism has come England’s way during their time in Australia as their performances have stumbled and underwhelmed but, if they have come this far, who is to argue against them overcoming another obstacle?
It is the fifth major tournament in a row that the Lionesses have reached the semi-finals, proving they are consistently competing for the biggest prizes.
As Earps said prior to victory over Colombia, “the best is yet to come” from England. It would be extremely helpful if England’s best arrives in time for their latest semi-final.